Four years of repositioning: Cairo Int’l Film Festival under Mohamed Hefzy’s presidency

Ati Metwaly , Thursday 17 Mar 2022

Expressing his gratitude on social media, Mohamed Hefzy has stepped down from the presidency of the Cairo International Film Festival, leaving the repositioned festival to his successor, iconic actor Hussein Fahmy.

Mohamed Hefzy

The Egyptian producer and scriptwriter served as the festival’s president for four consecutive years, between 2018 and 2021.

Hefzy made numerous improvements during his presidency, returning the festival’s strength on an international scale while creating an important platform for the support and development of Egyptian and other Arab independent filmmakers.

Hefzy expressed his pride over the four years of his presidency, and underscored that he had been working “with a great team of talented individuals”, all of whom aimed to lift the festival to a higher level in local, regional and international cinema.

While stepping down, Hefzy said that his initial intention had been to head the festival for three years, but “due to the circumstances and pandemic, they ended up being four great and memorable years, the most important time in my career in cinema thus far.”

Hefzy thanked Culture Minister Ines Abdel-Dayem “for her constant support and to my team who worked tirelessly for the festival year after year.” He also wished success to iconic actor Hussein Fahmy, who is succeeding Hefzy for the festival’s 44th edition, scheduled to take place at the end of 2022.

Fahmy, who is in his early 80s, is in fact a returning president of the CIFF, having headed the festival between 1998 and 2001. The multi-awarded actor starred in over 125 films as well as dozens of TV and radio series and theatre plays. Fahmy placed himself in the hearts of the Egyptian and Arab viewers since the 1970s, and over the six-decades of his illustrious career, he has collaborated with many generations of Egypt’s most important crews, filmmakers, and actors.

Hefzy’s post has sparked strong reactions from the artistic field, with many commenting on the four years he dedicated to the festival.

“You did an amazing job, Hefzy. I know the effort it took to modernise the festival and propel it into the 21st century. Thank you,” wrote film director Yousry Nasrallah.

Scriptwriter Rana Abu Rish noted: “We were all very proud of you and felt the tangible changes and the facelift you gave the festival. You did a sensational job to the extent that you made it very hard for whoever comes next. They certainly have big shoes to fill.”

Many voices emphasised Hefzy’s work on repositioning the festival, the changes and passion to develop a network that can support hundreds of independent filmmakers in the region while shedding important light on them.

Among the fundamental developments implemented by Hefzy was launch of Cairo Industry Days (CID) in partnership with the Arab Cinema Centre.

Running for five days during the 10-day-long festival, CID provides an important space for discussions, networking, meetings, workshops, masterclasses, and partnership opportunities between Arab talents and regional and international key industry professionals to further support Arab cinema.

For example, the fourth edition of CID (2021) hosted Netflix representatives as well as the second edition of ‘Because She Created,’ an initiative that sheds light on Arab female directors and role of women in the entertainment industry in the Arab world.

The CID also boosted the Cairo Film Connection (CFC), an older initiative held by CIFF. Under Hefzy’s presidency, the CFC’s support for new film projects increased tremendously, totalling $600,000 throughout the four years.

In 2021 alone, during the 43rd edition of the CIFF, the CFC distributed $300,000, the largest support extended to new film projects in the CFC’s eight-year history.

This was achieved through a dynamic network created by Hefzy with multiple partners. They include numerous heavyweights of the cinema industry such as the Arab Cinema Center (which extended an invitation to a chosen producer to participate in the Rotterdam Lab workshop), MAD Solutions and investment firm Ergo (which provided a grant for distribution across the Arab world), the Arab Radio and Television Network (ART), Arabia Pictures, Rotana, OSN, and numerous other partners supporting projects with many other services.

This support has been especially palpable since the 41st CIFF, in which Hefzy decided to expand the Horizons of Arab Cinema section. The facelift included raising the number of films from eight to 12; introducing two new awards – for the best non-fiction film and the best acting performance – to those already existing.

Hefzy’s presidency has also created an important impact internationally, such as intensifying the presence of Arab cinema in major festivals such as Cannes, Venice and Toronto.

In the second year of his presidency, and during the 41st CIFF (2019), the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) awarded the Festival OSCAR® qualifying film festival status, making it the only festival in North Africa on the list of international Oscar qualifying festivals. This procedure placed CIFF on the list of other prestigious qualifying international festivals, such as Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Sundance.

During the past four years, the CIFF worked in the sphere of creating gender equality in the film industry. In 2018, the festival joined the Gender Parity Pledge 5050×2020, boosting the CIFF’s image in the international campaign for gender-equality. Among numerous assets, this Cannes-born initiative opens doors to numerous women filmmakers and their work, empowering women in the local, regional and international film industry.

The 2020 edition launched a special award for best female representation and included 21 pictures by female directors in its line-up.

Following the festival’s tradition, CIFF honored many remarkable figures from Egyptian and international film industry. He has also introduced the festival to many international film figures, honoring them and/or hosting special meetings, workshops and seminars, inviting many on jury panels. Names include Serbian director Emir Kusturica who headed the International Competition Jury during the 43rd CIFF, Russian director and scriptwriter Alexander Sokurov who headed the International Jury a year earlier, honoring director of the Cannes International Film Festival Thierry Frémaux (43rd CIFF), honoring of the internationally acclaimed Indian composer A. R. Rahman, a masterclass with director and award-winning Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky (42nd CIFF), among dozens of others.

Hefzy’s appointment as the president of CIFF in 2018 (one of the oldest and the only festival in Africa and the Middle East to be given a “Category A” accreditation by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations in Paris) came with immediate positive feedback from the cinema industry on an international level. The 40th edition and the first that Hefzy presided over saw over 2200 film submissions from over 120 countries, giving the festival a truly international character. The submissions only multiplied over the following years, allowing the festival to host the best local, regional and international productions, many of which premiered in Cairo.

The 2021 edition witnessed more than 100 films including 34 world premieres. The 2020 edition saw 20 world premieres, with 83 films screened in competitive sections, and hailing from 43 countries. Under Hefzy’s presidency, the CIFF hosted a large number of international, world and regional premieres of important features from various countries.

Many other films had its regional premieres, such as Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman' starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, which opened the 41st CIFF (2019). Florian Zeller’s The Father, starring Academy Award winners Sir Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, was screened during the opening of 42nd CIFF (2020). This was one of the 33 MENA premieres held that year.

Hefzy also returned daily Red Carpet screenings, which had previously been held at the festival before it was abandoned. The screenings included showing important productions, with many having their premieres, with directors and stars in attendance.

The 40th CIFF immersed its audience in the latest film technologies, including virtual reality, screening 11 of the 360-degree productions. In fact, the 2018 edition’s theme was to embrace the virtual technology, making its entry to Egyptian cinema, being the second such development at festivals held in the Arab world.

With the 2020 edition especially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, CIFF made sure to comply with all precautionary measures set by the World Health Organisation. This included a reduced audience, social distancing, free-of-charge PCR tests for the festival’s guests and staff, and setting up a medical assistance unit at the hotel where stars were staying.

This article enumerates only a handful of achievements and important decisions that Hefzy managed to implement during the festival, raising its status while boosting significantly the presence of Arab filmmakers on an international scale.

As Rana Abu Rish noted, no doubt the upcoming president will have “big shoes to fill.” With Fahmy taking over the presidency, time will only show the new strengths that the iconic actor could add to the festival.

Hefzy is among the best known figures in the Egyptian cinema with a filmography boasting over 30 films, many of which garnered international acclaim. They have been screened and awarded at festivals in Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, Toronto, and Tribeca garnering more than 100 recognitions including numerous major prizes.

Among the best known films he has produced or co-produced are Microphone (2010), Villa 69 (2013), Rags and Tatters (2013), Clash (2016), Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim (2016), Sheikh Jackson (2017), You Will Die At 20 (2019), Feathers (2021), Souad (2021), Paranormal, Netflix's first Egyptian original series (2020), among others. 

In 2005, Hefzy founded Film Clinic, which over almost two decades has become one of the most important production companies in the MENA region, supporting commercial blockbusters and art-house films. Later Hefzy founded Film Clinic Indie Distribution, with a mission to create opportunities for Arab independent films within and beyond festival circuits and co-founded Meem Creative Circle which produced Paranormal.

Hefzy has been listed in 'Variety500', an index released by Variety that includes the 500 most influential business leaders shaping the global media industry in year 2020. A few years prior to that, in 2016, Variety also chose him for the top spot on the list of Ten Names You Need to Know in the Arab Film Industry.

Since 2013, Hefzy has been a board member of the Egyptian Chamber of Cinema and continues to represent and lobby for independent filmmakers in Egypt and throughout the Arab world.

He was granted the Arab Cinema Personality of the Year award by the Hollywood Reporter and Arab Cinema Center. Hefzy is an official member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences in the producers' branch. 

He was also a jury member in various international festivals including the 75th Venice International Film Festival. Prior to that, he was a jury member at the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival (2011).

Most recently, Hefzy was on the jury of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival 2022 (20 - 30 January).

In 2021, in recognition of his significant contribution to the Arab film scene, Hefzy was honored as a "Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres" from France.

Aside from his work as a writer and producer, Hefzy is a film activist who offers workshops and training programs conducted in cooperation with international organisations and institutes.

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