Towards gender equality, women's empowerment at the 41st Cairo Int’l Film Festival

Ati Metwaly , Wednesday 27 Nov 2019

The signing of the Gender Parity Pledge 5050×2020 is one of the many ways that CIFF works towards gender equality in the film industry

From top left clockwise: Gender Parity Pledge 5050×2020 logo, Menna Shalaby, Bahiga Hafez, still from film Khartoum Offside

This year, in its 41st edition, the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) increased its attention towards gender-equality and women empowerment issues.

The festival highlighted women working in the industry and is holding a number of discussions tackling gender-equality.

Though some might find that still a lot can be done, it is worth underlining some significant efforts which definitely boost the CIFF’s image in the international campaign for gender-equality as well as open doors to numerous women filmmakers and their work, empowering women in the local, regional and international film industry.

Gender Parity Pledge 5050×2020

The CIFF has joined a large network of festivals that signed the Gender Parity Pledge 5050×2020.

The pledge signing was announced on 22 November – on the opening day of Cairo Industry Days – during the introduction to a panel discussion titled 'The Power of Storytelling to Address Gender-Based Violence in Egyptian Cinema and Television.'

The panel moderator Sandra De Castro Buffington (founder and former director of UCLA’s Global Media Centre for Social Impact, and former director of Hollywood, Health & Society) reminded the participants that CIFF is the first Arab festival to have signed the Gender Parity Pledge 5050×2020.

The pledge strives for better gender representation and transparency by the year 2020. The initiative was first introduced at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 and soon signed by renowned International Film Festivals such as Venice, Toronto, Locarno, Turin, Berlin, among dozens of others.

Information about the pledge was just an introduction to a panel that tackled gender-based violence in Egyptian cinema and television. The discussion brought together a number of well-known women working in the film industry: filmmakers Kamla Abou Zekri and Nadine Khan; screenwriter Mariam Naoum; creative producer Karen Tenkhoff; actress Sarrah Abdelrahman in addition to a male participant, filmmaker Amr Salama.

Actress Sarah Abdelrahman, who opened the panel discussion, presented research which pointed to the lack of gender-equality in the Egyptian film industry despite the fact that many Egyptian women have made a great impact on and within the industry. According to the statistics provided by Abdelrahman, only a fifth of cast and crew, as well as the leading roles in many productions, include women.

Though the numbers opened eyes on the many gaps that are yet to be addressed, the participants in the discussion agreed that the situation is already improving, slowly but surely. Filmmaker Amr Salama gave examples of many iconic Egyptian actresses whose role in the film industry was groundbreaking, starting with Faten Hamama, with two of the most prestigious awards given at the festival carrying her name.

The women participants were invited to share their experiences in the film industry and talk about possible discrimination they witness directly or notice in their creative environment. Though no severe cases of gender-discrimination were cited, all the panellists asserted that women still have to make a much bigger effort to get noticed or have their projects accepted by the producers and other male members of the industry.

Gender Parity Pledge 5050×2020 logo

Featuring women with short films produced by CIFF

Working towards gender equality and women's empowerment, the CIFF has released short films on its social media showcasing the remarkable women of the Egyptian film industry. 

One such film reminds us of many important women who changed the face of Egyptian cinema: actress Aziza Amir (1901–1952), referred to as the mother of Egyptian cinema; actress, producer, screenwriter and musician Bahiga Hafez (1908–1983); actress, director and producer Fatma Roshdy (1908-1996), whose film The Marriage was the first Egyptian film to be directed by a woman; dancer, actress and director Amina Mohamed (1908-1985); and two Lebanese-born Egyptian actresses and producers Assia Dagher (1908-1984) and Mary Queeny (1913–2003).

Another video prepared by CIFF and produced in cooperation with Vogue Arabia features today’s stars of the Egyptian cinema: Mona Zaki, Menna Shalaby, Hend Sabry, Hala Shiha, Nour, Dorra, Tara Emad, Sherine Reda, and Nelly Karim.

The narration of the short film is taken from one of Faten Hamama’s interviews, in which she underscores the importance of woman in the film industry and the women’s role in changing the world.

“I now think, or perhaps believe, [that] I must always portray stories written by women. Because a woman knows how to express another woman’s demeanour. She can describe her character and portray her emotions perfectly,” Hamama’s voice says.

Bahiga Hafez, Aziza Amir and Assia Dagher

Jury, films by women and about women

Women are present on different levels of the festival.

This year, one of the major honorary awards of the Cairo International Film Festival, the Faten Hamama Excellence Award, was granted to the young Egyptian actress Menna Shalaby. The award was granted to Shalaby during the official opening of the festival.

Women's representation within the CIFF extends to a number of women sitting on jury panels.

The international jury deciding on the winner of the Golden Pyramid consists of six international filmmakers and writers, two of whom are women (directors Marion Hansel from Belgium and actress Qin Hailu from China). The films competing for the main award still lack presence of women directors, with Najwa Nijjar’s Between Heaven and Earth (Palestine), Marian Khoury’s Let’s Talk (Egypt) being among a few such entries.

The presence of women is not impressive in the jury of Horizons of Arab Cinema Competition either. The five jury members include two women, Egyptian actress Hana Shiha and Moroccan producer Lamia Chraibi.

The International Critics' Week Competition, however, has two women out of three jury members: critic Jessica Kiang from Ireland and Egyptian director Nadine Khan.

Moving on to the Cinema of Tomorrow International Competition for short fiction films, we meet two women in charge of the final choice: Egyptian actress Hanan Motawea and Dutch film promotion expert Nathalie Mierop.

Women's presence is apparent across many panel discussions either moderated by them or with their presence among the speakers, though of course one would wish to find a larger female contribution in the festival’s upcoming editions.

When looking at programming, the festival included numerous films which are either directed by women or focus on women's issues and struggles, many of which point to the need for direct empowerment.

A few films are worth pointing to, starting with Khartoum Offside directed by Marwa Zein, a Sudanese entry in the Arab Competition. The film talks about a group of persistent Sudanese women who want to become professional football players in the time when The Islamic Fiqh Council refused the establishment of a women’s soccer team.

Still from film Khartoum Offside

One of the fascinating entries is Dunya’s Day, a Saudi film where the camera follows Dunya, a young girl living in an affluent suburb of Riyadh, as she heads for a perfectly planned graduation party that ends in disaster. The film unveils social and cultural realities of Saudi Arabia.

Directed by Raed Alsemari, one of five Arab Stars of Tomorrow, as revealed by Screen International, Dunya’s Day was the first short film screened commercially in Saudi Arabia and winner of the Short Film Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival’s International Film Section (2019).

Hava, Maryam, Ayesha, an Afghani film participating in International Panorama, delves into the lives of three women living in the same city – Kabul – yet representing different social and cultural backgrounds.

India’s entry to the International Panorama, a film titled Dawn (Bhor) by Narayn Singh, presents the life of a teenage girl who is eager to have a better future and a different destiny than that of her female relatives and peers, many of whom give up on education while living in deplorable conditions.

In the same section, a film titled Maternal (Italy, Argentina) and directed by Maura Delpero, takes us to “hogar”, a home for teenage mothers run by Italian nuns. The film focuses on three women, each with different hopes and dreams, embraced by one institution that disconnects them from the world outside.

Midnight Screenings presents Swallow, a US/France production directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis. The film brief reveals Hunter, a newly pregnant housewife who finds herself increasingly compelled to consume dangerous substances. As her husband and his family tighten their control over her life, she must confront the dark secret behind her new obsession.

Still from film Dunya's Day

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