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INTERVIEW: 'Universal ideas, human stories' at this year's Ismailia film festival

The Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts will return this year after being postponed in 2015. Ahram Online talks to the festival's director Mohamed Atef about this year's highlights

Nahed Nasr, Tuesday 19 Apr 2016
Fragment from the festival's poster (Centre), films' stills (Left and Right)

The Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts is back for its 18 edition, taking place from 20 to 26 April.

The festival returns after a longer-than expected absence; the 17th edition took place in 2014 and the 2015 event was cancelled.

The director of the festival, film critic Mohamed Atef, has just completed his role as an artistic director of the Luxor Egyptian and European Film Festival, the fourth edition of which took place between 30 January and 5 February. Although long involved in the Ismailia festival in different capacities, this is his first year as director. Ahram Online sat down to speak with him about the upcoming event.

Ahram Online (AO): In the press conference you explained that this year the festival this will be far from politics and that it aims at bringing joy to its audience. What does that mean in terms of the film selections?

Mohamed Atef (MA): I wanted to make it clear that our main concern is the artistic quality of the films. However, films which depict human stories naturally reflect political and social realities in different countries, many of which are similar to our reality. As such we did not omit those films but we were very selective in terms of diversity and balance between all the films presented.

For example, a Pakistani short feature film titled Departure talks about labourers who are tricked by travel agencies which take their money for the dream of a job opportunity abroad. This subject reminds us of issues raised in Egyptian cinema in the 1970s and the 1980s.

The film selection is an eye-opener for what we share with others. We look at how the experiences of the other add to our knowledge. We also take into consideration how those experiences were depicted in terms of the technique or the artistic beauty.

AO: The festival did not have a 2015 edition. How did this gap affect the festival?

MA: The Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts has a very good reputation in Egypt and in the region. It is an event that many film-makers and cinema-lovers look forward to.

There were many problems last year and it was not an easy time for the festival. The decision to postpone the 2015 edition was not easy on the selection committee either since they already had the programming ready when the decision to postpone the festival was issued. However, now it is not a matter of why it was postponed but how we deal with this gap.

Due to the festival’s criteria, only [films produced during] the year or the previous year is eligible. The committee had to go through the selection process from the beginning. It was also a heart-breaking decision to see many beautiful films that could no longer take part in this year’s edition.

Yet, at the end of the day, despite all the challenges, we are glad that the festival is back.

AO: As festival director, what do you think you bring to this year’s event that is new?

MA: As a cinema critic, I have always considered the Ismailia festival to be my favourite in the country. I used to be involved in all its activities, and was a member of its selection committee for several years.

The festival is a very special event for many cinema followers; it attracts film-makers and film students from all over the country. It is a specialised festival and a space for enhancing young film-makers’ talents and networks.

This year the festival will reflect youthfulness, and will talk about gender and human diversity. This will be reflected through the film selection as well as other activities, and even the committee and the jury. Even the festival’s logo is filled with a joyful spirit. Hence we can say that we return with a lot of joy and enthusiasm.

AO: How far does the film list reflect the diversity of techniques, especially in documentaries?

MA: When you organise a film festival you not only import what is new in film production, but also what is new in festival organising.

This year we considered giving a space not only to the films but to introduce how the films are being made. There will be a seminar titled “Documentary Films Between the Old Traditions and the Beauty of Film-Making.” It will introduce the most recent trends in film-making in terms of the camera movement, the film treatment, the subject. The film selection reflects those elements and techniques very clearly.

AO: You mentioned at the press conference held a few days ago that among the festival’s focuses is the issue of gender. What did you mean by that?

MA: It relates to issues that are a main concern of women. We have a special programme called Act where juries will look into films that deal with women’s issues. Also most of the jury in this section are women.

AO: Securing the budget is not an easy task and it remains one of the main challenges for any festival organised in Egypt. How did you manage to deal with the financial requirements of the event? And what other challenges did you face?

MA: The festival had a sum of EGP 1.2 million secured. Add to this logistic support from the Ministry of Culture and Ismailia governorate, as well as several other governmental institutions, and volunteers in Ismailia.

Funding is always the main concern and we need money or logistical support for many aspects of the festival. It is not easy even to screen the films.

For instance, a film that won several awards has high financial demands. As follows, it is always a tough task to make a perfect balance between the price of the films and the general quality of the festival.

Also, in terms of screening equipment we are still depending on the traditional tools. Newer technology is more protective of the film. This makes it even harder to get the screening rights from the international distributors.

All of these elements make it a difficult task to hold a film festival, but it is not impossible. For sure we could have done better have we had better capacities, however we did the best we could under the circumstances.

AO: And since the festival is held in Ismailia, a city in northeastern Egypt, how does the event relate to the reality of this governorate?

MA: Actually we tried to take the festival out of the traditional, previously practiced, concept of an event that comes from Cairo with Cairo visitors who stay for one week in Ismailia.

We wanted the festival to attract the local audience. Young film-makers and cinema students in Ismailia are part of all the activities of the festival. We have several film-making and animation workshops targeting the young people form Ismailia and the neighbouring governorates. In addition, all the volunteers at the festival are from Ismailia.

As for the screenings, the festival will take place at the halls that operate under the Ministry of Culture and at private cinemas, as well as a few open-air locations. So, we hope to reach to different audiences.

AO: Why did you choose Sherif El-Bendary’s Dry Hot Summer (Har Gaf Sayfan) for the festival opening?

MA: Dry Hot Summer already gained a lot of praise during the 13th Dubai International Film Festival [which took place earlier this year]. In Ismailia it will have its Egypt premiere and it is good to open such an event with an Egyptian premiere.

Dry Hot Summer is a very interesting film about the fate of Egyptian women when it comes to what the society expects from them. It tells a story of a young lady on her wedding night.

AO: What about Arab cinema’s presence in the festival?

MA: We have several Arab documentaries.

Documentary film-making is progressing considerably in the Arab world and many new narratives are being explored.

An interesting film in the Panorama section is Babor Casanova by Algerian director Karim Sayad. It is about the phenomenon of the Ultras in the Arab world.

Also the Lebanese film Kamal Joumblatt, in the official competition of the long documentaries is worth shedding light on. The film represents the sectarian face of Lebanon through the life story of the Lebanese political leader.

In addition, a film from Morocco called Amal is interesting to see, as is Egyptian documentary Tuk-Tuk.

We also have several promising Egyptian films made by cinema students, such as A Present From the Past and The Eye of Life.

There is definitely a lot to look for.

AO: And do you have favourite films at the festival?

MA: The selection committee watched almost a thousand films and chose 74. I cannot really point to a list of favourites. I think that the whole selection is very good.

Among many films I’d like to highlight, let’s begin with an important film, Stony Paths, the French-Turkish production about an Armenian film-maker who traced the path of the Turkish people who saved the lives of his family during the massacres.

The addition, the film The Man Who Mends Women has a very innovative way of dealing with the issue of the female victims of rape.

There is also The Third Generation, a very special Iranian film about the victims of Vietnam who are still suffering from the effects of the American napalm.

Those films have won many awards, but the most important element is that they really represent a different reality in an innovative way.

Most of these films also are about universal ideas, human stories, and common visions.

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