The Luxor African Film Festival (LAFF, 6-12 March) became the first major film festival to face coronavirus preventative measures when, on its fourth day, 9 March, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli suspended all large gatherings. The festival promptly cancelled its activities including screenings, and the jurors worked from their hotel rooms, working as fast as they could. The 11 March press conference which stood in for the closing ceremony, normally held at one of Luxor’s tourist hotspots, was limited to the media and guest filmmakers.
According to LAFF director Azza Elhosseiny, although 60 percent of the festival had already taken place, the crisis took the administration by surprise: “We’d had a grand opening at the Luxor Temple, most of the film screenings and other activities whether in Luxor or Qena,” the other Upper Egyptian city the festival serves, “had been accomplished. But we couldn’t end the festival without the filmmakers especially those coming from abroad knowing how their work fared in the competitions, so we had to have the juries finish their work.” As far as that goes Elhosseiny is satisfied, but she cannot predict the future of either LAFF or the African film industry in the light of social distancing and the economic consequences of lockdown. “The negative impact of this pandemic on the film industry is huge, especially in countries like Egypt where the film industry is in crisis. For festivals it will be even worse because their budgets are unlikely to be a priority in the long term.” Online streaming of films, she says, is not a solution: “I feel it’s unfair to filmmakers to have their premieres online. It could be an option for the current situation but streaming does not support the industry.”
A few days after the end of LAFF, the Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts (IIFFDS) — another significant event whose 22nd round was to take place in the second week of April — announced that it would be suspended until further notice. IIFFDS president Essam Zakaria had hoped to hold the festival in September, but he now says it is unclear if that will be possible. Going virtual, he says, is not an option, partly because of streaming rights among other issues. The dates for the next round depend on all kinds of factors, air traffic and freedom of movement within Egypt being chief among them, but one way of managing the crisis, which is what happened in 2012 following the cancellation of the festival in 2011 because of political turmoil, is to organise a double round in 2021. He too feels the crisis will hugely impact the film industry, particularly narrative films which require higher budgets, crews and equipment: “The losses will continue for many years to come.” He is more optimistic about documentaries, which might see a surge as a result: “On one hand they are used to be screened in limited venues, but their budgets are relatively small.”
The next big thing on the agenda is the fourth El Gouna Film Festival (GFF), to take place in the last week of September. According to GFF director Intishal Al Timimi, even though the decision has not yet been made to hold the festival as planned, everyone is working in that spirit. “We manage our everyday tasks normally within social distancing hoping that by September life will be back to normal,” he says, but the decision depends on the situation all over the world where the festival guests come from. One sign will be whether or not festivals that take place before GFF – Venice, Toronto or Sarajevo – are held. For a holiday-season festival held in a resort, postponing would be impractical, he says, but streaming would not suffice: “Film festivals are not just a platform for screenings. We have film projects to support, important panels on critical issues and workshops. All of these activities depend on direct interaction between people.” Likewise the opening and closing ceremonies: “That is why I think the Cannes Festival decided to postpone rather than go online.” Whatever comes of it Al Timimi is happy with GFF’s ability to secure quality films: “Only 12 percent of our programme comes from the big film festivals because we already have our own connections with distributers and filmmakers and we can arrange or own premieres.” This is especially true of Arab films and Middle East premieres. Al Timimi is not as pessimistic about the regional impact of the pandemic, which might lead to Arab films premiering in the Arab world rather than in places such as Cannes.
As for GFF director Amir Ramses, himself a filmmaker, he feels the virtual Cannes Film Market next June will be a good indicator of the global situation: “It will help us to track new films besides those we’ve already selected from winter festivals like Berlin.” The crisis, he says, will have stopped many filmmakers from shooting, and even films in post production might have problems obtaining scores, for example, since studios are closed. In the Arab world the situation only worse since were almost no Arab films in the winter festivals: “This crisis will have a negative effect on the film industry worldwide because the economics of cinema depends on factors such as audience priorities, and that’s why large projects are delayed. Personally speaking I’m not a fan of the virtual option, especially with the low quality of the internet speed in Egypt. And in no way does this solution seem practical in our case.”
The last – and greatest – festival on the agenda is the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), which is held at the end of November. According to its artistic director, critic Ahmed Shawky, despite social distancing, the team is working in the spirit that the festival will be taking place: “Until now we are making use of the privilege of being the last event on the world’s prestigious festival calendar. This means we still have time to observe the situation and work on our programme.” So far there has been a dearth of films, he says, but after a month at home the team is ready to take on its tasks from the office again. There are many options, Shawky says, including conducting the industry component virtually, but none of them can be confirmed until it is decided that the festival will take place as planned. Shawky is against streaming, which undermines the very meaning of cinema: “The more people see films on their own smaller screens, the more the big screens disappear.”
One option under consideration is to hold a reduced round with films from 2019: “The films’ right owners may not want to screen their films if they know there will no room for proper distribution, and so will want to wait till next year. The Toronto Film Festival for example announced that if this round happens it will have no premieres.” As for Arab film productions, Shawky does not believe there will be enough films for the four big Arab film festivals: Cairo, El Gouna, Marrakech, and Carthage. He also doubts Arab filmmakers will want to screen their new films under the circumstances. Although Shawky finds it is difficult to evaluate the negative impact of the current situation on the film industry worldwide, he believes the situation in the Arab region will be particularly difficult: “There is a kind of a stereotype in our countries among the audience and even people who work in the entertainment sector that this industry is not worthy of priritising in a health crisis. Compared to the West, where it is being targeted with urgent support, the film industry comes almost as an afterthought.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly