Cairo Film Festival promises fresh comeback

Heba El-Sherif, Wednesday 10 Sep 2014

The organisers of the 36th Cairo International Film Festival, scheduled to be held between 9 and 18 November, share their plans to revamp the state-run event

CIFF posters

The same venue that stretched a red carpet for the opening ceremony of over 30 editions of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) is being prepped again this November, bracing for the glitz and glamour heeled by world premieres and icons of the film community.

Since the 2011 revolution, the festival has been cancelled twice, once in 2011 and again in 2013, disrupting the flow of this annual event. 

Both times, the Ministry of Culture cited security concerns. This time, however, organisers of the country’s oldest film festival promise overhauling changes. 

While the festival did take place as scheduled in 2012, the closing ceremony was canceled due to clashes in Tahrir Square, after protesters gathered to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes. 

Over three decades of highs and lows

After its inception in 1976, it was no surprise that CIFF strolled among the ranks of the world’s top film festivals, owning its membership of the International Federation of Film Producers Associations, the body that regulates festivals worldwide. Evidently, Egypt boasted the oldest film industry in the region and bred some of the silver screen’s biggest names.

Come the 2000s, CIFF started facing competition from Dubai and Abu Dhabi film festivals, as well as Tribecca in Doha, a reality that Joseph Fahim, film critic and newly appointed programme director for the upcoming edition of CIFF, cites as one of the reasons affecting the festival’s performance of late.

“I think it is not news to anyone that CIFF has been suffering for the past few years,” Fahim told Ahram Online. To him, this suffering manifested itself in “mismanagement, lack of proper organisation and dwindling curation.”

Critics and filmmakers noted the frequent sight of empty theatres during the last few editions of the festival, a reality which organisers are set out to address this year.

“We want to set a standard for the film festival,” Mohamed Samir, producer and current artistic director of CIFF, told Ahram Online.

Samir explained that the team is adamant to set strong pillars for the festival, a place where “films are screened for the first time, our cinematic history is on display and we have platforms for cooperation between the industry (festival programmers, distributors).”

“We want to focus on good films, excellent audio and visual equipment and promotion of local projects,” he added, referring to films and works-in-progress by Egyptian filmmakers.

On setting a new standard for the festival, Fahim explained that a number of factors are being taken into account: carefully crafted programming, holding multiple activities that are not solely restricted to watching films, and inviting important cultural figures that would enrich the cultural dialogue in Egypt.

Since the early 2000s, the biggest grossing Egyptian films have been the seasonal commercial scores, a reality that partly explains the audiences’ reluctance to follow CIFF’s line-up. But as Egypt witnessed a cultural outpouring post 2011, and a particular rise in the number of festivals and the size of crowds that frequent them, it became evident that CIFF’s management had to give more precedence to content.

“It’s a matter of shifting the priorities of the festival… I am happy to be part of making this happen,” Samir, who produced Mohamed Khan’s Factory Girl last year, said.

The facelift

At the end of last year, a committee -- drawn largely from the independent film community -- gathered to sketch out the blueprint for CIFF.

Samir Farid, renowned film critic and current president of CIFF, approached the committee’s members in late 2013, according to Fahim, to “rejuvenate the festival and utilise their experience at film festivals,” seeing that many of them had been regularly attending festivals in the last few years.  

The committee included veteran Egyptian filmmaker Yousri Nassrallah, directors Ahmad Abdalla (Microphone, Rags and Tatters), Ahmed Maher, Maggie Morgan (‘Asham, 2012), Hala Galal, as well as Fahim.

“All the filmmakers in the committee had festival experience… and a lot of progressive ideas were being tossed around,” commented Abdalla on the series of brainstorming sessions held over three months.  

Among the changes proposed was setting up three categories alongside the Official Selection category, namely: Prospects of Arab Movies, which will screen Arab Films and will be organised by the Film Syndicate; Critics Week, screening 1st and 2nd time filmmakers, which will be organised by the Critics’ Syndicate; and Cinema of Tomorrow, showing shorts and student films, curated entirely by the Higher Institute of Cinema.

Fahim explained that this framework is intended to diversify the content and types of films screened throughout the festival. Each of the three sections will operate autonomously, meaning that the organising body will be responsible for the selection of films, jury selection and prizes. CIFF will only provide the funding.

Drawing from structures of international festivals, the committee also proposed a series of side events that are meant to give the upcoming festival the scent of a cultural event and not just a series of film viewings.

An Industry Forum will be set up in parallel to the screenings, creating an organic platform where Egyptian filmmakers can meet international distributors and festival programmers.

On the other hand, the Cinephile bookworms will revel in rows of movie books by local publishers as well as foreign film books about the Arab world on display in a book fair. The festival will celebrate veteran Egyptian director Henri Barakat and Emirati artist Nagat Mekki through visual installations that will run throughout the festival.

“The festival, as it should be, belongs to the audience and to the industry,” added Samir, reiterating his belief that one of the festival’s pivotal roles is to nurture a space where the filmmaking industry in Egypt is displayed and is granted an opportunity to flourish internationally.     

To ensure due publicity, a total of 100 critics will be invited to review the 80+ selected films screened throughout the festival. A phone application boasting the complete schedule of the festival is also in the pipeline.

As part of prepping for this edition of CIFF, Farid, Samir and Fahim made the rounds at major film festivals around the world, including Cannes, Sundance, Venice and Berlin.

“We did not attend [international festivals] only to pick up movies and make deals, but most importantly to re-establish a relationship with distributors,” explained Fahim, who blamed past festival organisers for mistreating submitted films, damaging reels and often failing to return them to distributors.

From a 'nice party' to a cultural event

When arthouse cinema Zawya returned to its activities after Ramadan to a sold out screening Jews of Egypt: End of a Journey, independent film critics must have shuddered from joy.

Two things come to mind: the rarity of an initiative like Zawya is no longer an obstacle to its success, and documentary features have started to gain ground among Egyptian audiences.

It is precisely these developments that have laid the ground for the changes CIFF is undergoing.

For Abdalla, whose second feature film, Microphone, won the Best Arabic-language Film Award from CIFF in 2010, the hope is that in coming years CIFF will go back to being a “popular festival, where movie theatre owners trade the commercial screenings for festival films.” 

Meanwhile, Fahim is hoping to turn the festival “from a nice party into a cultural event… [The] Egyptian audience is hungry for movies and they deserve good movies; they should get good movies and they should get the festival that this city deserves.”

With lofty ambitions and year of hard work, it seems that Egypt’s film community as well as its audiences are in for a treat, a strong comeback that will hopefully revive CIFF’s stature both locally and abroad. 

The Cairo International Film Festival will be held at the Cairo Opera House 9-18 November, 2014. 


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