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Tuesday, 11 May 2021

INTERVIEW: First female President of Cairo International Film Festival hails experience as 'cinema lover'

The 37th edition of the festival sees its first female president and will honour some of the country's iconic actors who recently passed away

Walt Curnow, Wednesday 11 Nov 2015
37th CIFF

Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) is set to begin its 37th edition on 11 November and will continue until the 20th. Ahram Online spoke to Magda Wassef, the festivals only ever female president, who is managing it for the first time this year.

Having been cancelled in 2011 and again in 2013 because of ongoing instability in the country, there were some fears that the festival would lose its international accreditation. In 2012, many Egyptian artists boycotted the festival, citing that the management was unfit to represent them and that it had invited "third-rate commercial actors" at the expense of local, emerging talents. The closing ceremony at the Opera House was cancelled because of clashes in nearby Tahrir Square.

Although other festivals in the region are better funded and are able to exist in more stable conditions, CIFF is the oldest – after being established in 1976 by the writer Kamal El-Malakh.

This year the festival will honour some of the country's greatest actors who recently passed away, but at the same time is looking ahead to nurture emerging talents.

Ahram Online (AO): How will this year’s Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) be compared to previous years?

Magda Wassef (MW): The 37th edition is a sequence of all the previous editions of the festival. However, there are a couple of enhancements such as Cairo Film Connection workshops, we kept the parallel programmes- Horizons of the New Arab Cinema, International Critics Week and Cinema of Tomorrow and we made sure that the competition that we started last year would continue.

Each year we make sure the panel discussion continues. We’re having two panel discussions. One about film restoration and preservation as well as the history of films in Egypt. The other panel is going to be called Cinema and Country and it's about the role that the state has played in the film making industry.

There is another parallel programme about Japanese animated cinema and a screening of seven films by Ghibli. Also, we will have tributes to famous Egyptian icons that we lost this year and a tribute to the international icons who are going to be here for the festival such as Claudia Cardinale and Farah Khan. And from Egypt, Hussein Fahmy and Nelly Karim are receiving excellence and honourary awards.

AO: Having worked with CIFF in the past, do you think it is in a better position now or do you have to start all over again considering that it was cancelled in 2011 and 2013 for security reasons?

MW: Of course the festival has been influenced by the political situation since 2011. It returned in 2012 after being cancelled the previous year, but under very different circumstances. Then it stopped again in 2013. It came back last year with different management and then this year with different management once again for the 37th edition. This has created instability, which one way or another reflects on the festival.

With all these problems, the festival is still managing to stay together. This year we are trying to be more organised, along with the variety of programmes and all we can do is hope that the cinema lovers of Egypt help out by attending.

AO: Is it a step forward for the festival and for the whole cultural scene in Egypt for the fact that you are the first ever-female president of the festival? Or are you president because of your previous experience in the film scene?

MW: I think its due to my extensive experience that I had in Paris for many years working at the Arab Institute as well as being President of the Arab Cinema Festival in Paris (Paris Biennale) since 1992.

In Egypt I was the president of Luxor European Film Festival for three years in a row, which I founded. I founded the festival through the Noon Foundation for Culture and Arts with friends so as able to make create the festival.

CIFF for me is a continuation of all the experience I have had as a cinema lover. My relationship with the festival goes back to 1985 in Paris when I was a delegate of the festival there.

So the festival for me is a very familiar place and I have known everyone who has worked in it for a very long time now. The management of the festival in a significant way depends on coordination and organisation. I hope that this year’s edition will be well coordinated as well as having a good screening programme – which I think is the case – with its diversity. I wish that it is also going to be a good opportunity for Cairenes to discover international cinema which is not the case during most of the year.

AO: You were president of Luxor European Film Festival for the last few years. One of the challenges of organising that festival was that it was in a city with no cinemas and you were trying to encourage people to watch films and have an experience that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to normally have. Cairo is obviously different, but are you trying to open up the festival for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able see foreign films?

MW: CIFF is so different and has a specific identity because it brings films from all over the world. In my opinion, films from all countries, including Africa, should be presented.

For this reason, we organised a parallel programme called the Festival of Festivals where there will be screenings of many award-winning films from all over the world. It includes about 40 films fom the world’s most important festivals. That’s how we become like a mirror for cinema that reflects the international scene throughout the year.

There is section about movies that have been restored with a collaboration with Martin Scorsese in New York. We have movies from Africa, the Philippines, Italy, and so many other countries that will be screened throughout the festival.

Our goal, or what we aim at, is for the movie lovers of Egypt to learn more about the history of cinema. Cinema wasn’t created in 2015, it started in 1895. There are some films from history that I really hope don’t disappear. It is a chance for the youth to see some of them on the big screen.

AO: Although the festival is highly respected, how does it manage to compete with other big festivals in the region, such as Dubai or Marrakech?

MW: I don’t compare myself to the festivals that are organised in the Arab world, but I can compare CIFF to the big international film festivals that belong to the same category A, according to the International Federation of Film Producers Associations.

I hope that one day we would be like Cannes, Berlin or Venice or at least be as important. We belong to the same category.

However, I wish the Arab festivals all the best but Egypt’s festival is the oldest in the Arab world. It started in 1976 in a country where movies industry began in 1898 influencing the whole region.

And there has always been a big tradition of families going to the cinema, a phenomenon which perhaps doesn’t exist as much in other Arab countries.

Though at the same time, yes, maybe Gulf countries have a bigger budget and money- more than us and wish them success as I said before.

AO: Since the 2011 uprising, do you think that Egypt has witnessed cultural changes? And do you think that Egypt’s representation in the festival will be stronger than in the past?

MW: Yes, we have two films in the main competition and a third in the special screenings. There are also other movies in the parallel programmes.

There will be a screening of Egyptian film in the critics week as well as two Egyptian films in the Horizons of the Arab Cinema and in the Cinema of Tomorrow section.

In addition, there are tributes to Omar Sharif, Fatten Hamama, Nour El-Sherif, and Hussein Fahmy. There is a strong representation of Egyptian films this year, definitely. All the way from the classics to new productions from 2015.

AO: The festival is also looking back honouring some of the greats of Egyptian cinema such as Hussein Fahmy, Fatten Hamama, Omar Sharif and Nour El-Sherif. In what way will this enhance the festival and how do these icons influence Egyptian cinema as well as the festival itself?

MW: This year we lost many of the icons of Egyptian cinema. We lost Fatten Hamama first, then Omar Sharif and then Nour El-Sherif so it's clear that we need to tribute those who left such a big imprint and legacy on this country’s cinema.

All the cinema lovers are now left with these people’s influence in Egypt and the Arab world, especially Omar Sharif who became an international icon. We have to show their work and we even published our books about them as tributes.

AO: The festival in recent years has had difficulties and tensions with the Ministry of Culture. How is this relationship affecting the festival this year?

MW: It’s a good relationship. The Minister of Culture became the supervisor of the festival and there is a team of employees who are working throughout the whole year for it too, while the president and other staff change.

The ministry ultimately chooses the president, as well as also funding the festival. Of course this is important. All we wish for is for a better budget – for this year – but also next year and beyond. And we need a more stable management team that doesn’t change each year.

However, the ministry didn’t interfere in any of the process of running the festival itself- not the programme or anything else. People high up in the ministry helped facilitate everything and assisted us in fixing any problems that occurred.

AO: There are obvious security concerns for the festival, because of the current situation in the country. How are you ensuring that the venue, guests and audience will be safe throughout the festival and are there any extra precautions that you are taking?

MW: Sure, we are securing the festival- it’s a very high priority and we’ve had lots of meetings to make sure everything is going to be safe from the moment that the guests arrive, as well as their transport, all the way up until they leave. There will always be security around them. We are very concerned about our guests so it has the highest priority.  

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