The Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (CIFCET, 10-19 September) offered performances from Europe, North and South America, Asia and Africa. CIFCET is yearly awaited with enthusiasm and high expectations, although it is not the only festival that brings the international theatre scene to Egypt. The Hakawy Festival every March provides a wide variety of children’s and youth theatre from around the world, D-CAF (March and April) brings over an even more dense selection of European theatre, Theatre is a MUST (March and April) showcases the most experimental and political choice on the international scene, the Sharm El-Sheikh International Festival for Youth Theatre (April) provides a considerable range of performances with a focus on emerging Arab theatre. Taking into consideration that Theatre is a MUST is the only international — and independent — theatre festival held primarily in Alexandria, one can easily see the range of international offerings throughout the year and compare them. Nevertheless CIFCET remains the state’s principal contribution to an international stage in Cairo, carrying the icon of innovation and introducing new discourse to the local theatre scene by presenting of new world trends in experimentation. This background makes it difficult to examine CIFCET without extending the line towards the achievements of the festival before 2011, when it was still named the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. Now as we see the performances, in a nostalgic flashback we also see previous editions and old performances that marked Cairo’s history of spectatorship engaging with international innovative work.
Thanks to Dina Amin, the festival director, this year I was fortunate enough to obtain a press pass. Amin is the driving force behind the invitation of many Western productions, namely those coming all the way from the United States. In this 26th edition, the USA was the guest of honour, which usually means a special focus on innovative theatre work from that country by inviting a couple of productions, paying tribute to one or two pioneering theatre makers, and offering workshops by leading artists. I am not personally familiar with the reasons behind the choice of a specific country as a guest of honour, but it is a huge task already to work on inviting and presenting such a big chunk of activities belonging to one country. Obviously Amin did a great job achieving that difficult task, her academic experience in the USA supporting her with the necessary knowledge and connections. The US embassy was apparently the main funder of all American activities in the festival. At the opening, the representative of the embassy gave a speech centered on her love of theatre. Although I am always uncomfortable with official speeches taking time in public events that are supposed to be dedicated to artistic discourse, this time I found the American speech to be the only one of substance. The Egyptian Minister of Culture gave no speech, which is exceptional and almost never happens. I am sure that as an artist she meant to give space to more artistic discourses, but unfortunately the president of the festival Sameh Mahran gave a mysterious speech that was almost impossible to decode. With Arabic subtitles, the embassy representative’s speech was by far the only intelligible one, which made for an awkward experience.
The opening ceremony included the presentation of the festival’s honourees, as well as a short dance designed by Karima Beder with music composed by Haytham El-Khamissi. The ceremony was staged by the prominent theatre director Essam El-Sayed (also the general coordinator of CIFCET). The most shocking aspect of the event was the so-called one-man comedy show performed by Ahmed Amin, though it was fortunately very compact. A comedian who is very talented on screen, and who presented a great comedy series heavily relying on his own talents in improvisation in El-Plateau, at the festival Amin presented content that was offensive to the very concept of CIFCET itself. It was not funny at all to make fun of experimentation or to define it in a humiliating way. While sarcasm can be a very powerful tool, it should not overrule meaning. The structure, wording and significance of the whole text insinuated hatred for experimentation and innovation.
One very positive announcement made by Mahran was that this edition is the last one for his team, and that starting from 2020 we’ll have a new team running the festival. This meets the expectations and the managing principles of democracy when running a cultural institution, i.e. the regular change of leading figures, the renewal of discourse and the democratic and objective evaluation of work. I salute Mahran and his team for holding onto those principles and respecting their term of service. I sincerely hope that all festival presidents and directors do the same. One wonders about the next steps, about how to make an overall evaluation of the festival in its new conception, and about how to select the new managing team. It seems that the theatre committee at the Supreme Council of Culture will be responsible for this selection, and its the head will probably become the next president of the festival. But nobody knows as yet.
This year CIFCET also had a kind of African focus. Thanks to CIFCET director Asmaa Yehia, who is a passionate scholar of African drama, there was a conference session on African drama with a presentation of her own book, as well as the selection of the very prominent scholar Jessica Kahwa from Uganda as an honouree of the festival. Unfortunately two of the four programmed African productions, both from South Africa, were cancelled. It was said that political unrest stood in the way of their travel. It was disappointing.
Another disappointment was the cancellation of the performance from Kuwait at the Balloon Theatre after a 70-minute wait past the opening time. No explanation was given to the audience until it was announced that there were some technical problems. The performance was staged the next day. This disappointment also brings to light another major issue related to the organisation, which is how to plan the entrance of the spectators to the performance space. This is an ancient issue that has dogged CIFCET since the 1990s. It is said that this is the responsibility of each venue, its ushers and security personnel, but I believe that since those performances are held run under the rubric of the festival, the plan connected to receiving and admitting the audience should be conceived according to festival policy. Actually this reminds us that there should be a policy for the festival, and as part of it a section that regulates relations to the audiences, the entrance process and venue management. Every year it becomes an ordeal to enter to the performance, which affects the theatricality of the performance that we are going to see, and the theatricality of the festival itself.
If CIFCET has a policy of management, implementation and selecting performances, it should be announced. For instance I do not understand why there is one specific performance and only one that carries the label of being on the fringe. What does “fringe” mean here? I also do not understand the choice of productions belonging with children and youth theatre. Why does CIFCET make that choice? Isn’t this a clear breach of its principles? Is it gradually becoming a children and youth festival? Or a festival including such a section? And why is it not announced in the programme that those productions are initially made and presented in their country of origin as children and youth performances? In the next few weeks I will be reviewing several performances that were presented at CIFCET, with a special focus on their experimental and innovative aspects. I will also focus on the artists who were given the festival’s medal and who were celebrated at the closing ceremony.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.