According to the president of the 22nd Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts (IIFFDS, 16-22 June), the renowned film critic Essam Zakaria, the delay of the 22ed edition in 2020 due to the pandemic has had negative effects. But it has also had a positive side: “We were able, for the current edition, to select the best of the best films in two years, in addition to some 2021 productions as well.” The postponement of festivals and most audience activities is an international phenomenon anyway. “So it is better to focus on the bright side, which is that life is coming back and that we’ve been working hard for two years which proves very fruitful.”
Due to state regulations, in fact, the festival was delayed twice again this year, from April to May and from May to June. “This round,” Zakaria goes on, “is two editions in one. But at the same time we had to limit the program and to reduce some of its activities and film numbers to meet the health precautions of the pandemic. We were able to create a good balance between the quality of films and making everything available to the audience at the same time.”
Turning the IIFFDS into an online event was not an option “Online screening is not the best choice for every filmmaker, but it is the special quality of this festival, its connection with the local audience of Ismailia where people not only see the films but also communicate with the filmmakers and the festival’s guests. That is why the online option was not open to us.” The festival, which used to screen some of its films in open-air spaces and social clubs, in addition to the Ismailia Culture Palace halls, will this year add an open-air opening and closing ceremony including an open-air screening of the opening film. “We did our best to secure high-tech audio-visual devices to ensure that the open-air screenings would have the best quality.”
According to Zakaria, one of the main problems posed by the delays was the choice of jury members. Thankfully the festival was able to secure a prestigious jury for each o its competitions. The jury of the documentary competition has the Iraqi filmmaker Abbas Fadel as president as well as the Emirati filmmaker Nujoom Al-Ghanem, the Egyptian filmmaker Hala Khalil and the Serbian filmmaker Dejan Petrovic. The fiction and animation competition jury has Moroccan filmmaker Abdelilah Al-Johary, Russian distributor Elena Korzhaeva, Chilean screenwriter Tomas Welss, Egyptian screenwriter Tamer Habib and Macedonian producer Benjamin Kirtishi.
This year the festival opens with Fiancées (2019), the Swiss filmmaker Julia Bunter’s debut feature documentary, on which she accompanies three Egyptian young women preparing for their wedding in Cairo. Their fate reveals deeper insights into Egyptian society and its youth, which is torn between tradition and the desire for freedom.
One of the more interesting programmes this year is Stars in Shorts, which pays homage to Egyptian film stars who starred in short movies either at the beginning of their career or after they became stars. The programme invites seven Egyptian film stars to celebratory seminars where they talk about the importance of short movies in their careers and their most recent short films. They are Sabry Fawaz, Ahmed Kamal, Ahmed Wafik, Safia Al-Emary, Basma, Salwa Mohamed Ali and Ahmed Bedir. The films to be screened in the programme are Habib (2019) by Shady Fouad, starring Sayed Ragab and Salwa Mohamed Ali; What Remained (2021) by Rogina Bassaly, starring Mahmoud Qabeil and Safia El Emary; Wintery Spring (2015) by Mohamed Kamel, starring Ahmed Kamal and Eman Moustafa; and Out of The Box (2020) by Ahmed El Basosy, starring Basma.
Considering the Egypt-Russia Cultural Year, which was scheduled for 2020 but delayed, IIFFDS celebrates the event with a special Russian film programme since Russia is the guest of honour this year. According to Zakaria, there was a special consideration to promote recent productions from Russia rather than presenting classical films. “We wanted people to watch those films that have less opportunity to be seen through the digital platforms, so the audience can look forward to something different on the big screen,” Zakaria said.
The Russian programme includes nine Russian recent productions. The screening list includes Yuliya Kiseleva’s feature length documentary Brain Evolution (2019), a journey exploring the work of the brain, perception and the self from a scientific perspective.
There are also two short documentary films. Dead Season (2020) by Natalia Savras is about Sasha, an animation director trying to find a comfortable position in a new country where she faces her first major inner conflict between her creative ambitions and the desire to make money.
The other short documentary is Don’t Speak (2020) by Anton Azarov. It is the story of Bichiko who moves to Batumi, Georgia to meet his childhood friend Nuzgari in an attempt to recover from a breakup with his girlfriend, only to discover a secret that may end his relationship with his friend too.
In the Russian programme – as well as two animation shorts, Butterflies and Wandering – there are also three short fiction films: NABAT (2020) by Darkhan Tulegenov, Mama (2018) by Vladimir Kott, and Pitfall (2019) by Damir Ibragimov.
The Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts
For Zakaria, one way or another animation seems like the future of world cinema: “It is part of every kind of filmmaking, being fiction or documentary. In this round, we tried to bring local attention to this point by focusing on the importance of animation through a well-designed programme that introduces the most influential animation schools in the world today.”
The animation programme is another special event in the 22nd round of IIFFDS, with three of the most important world animation schools represented by 25 short animation films each: the Animation Workshop/ VIA University College (Denmark), ASIFA HELLAS - Hellenic Animation Association (Greece),and The National Film Institute (Hungary).
IIFFDS has four competitions in the international programme: the Feature Length Documentary, the Short Documentary, the Short Fiction, and the Short Animation competitions; in addition to the Student Film competition. In the four international competitions there are a number of interesting international and Arab films. In the Feature Length Documentary Competition 10 films, either world premieres or award winners, include three Arab films.
A home of one’s own (2019) by the Lebanese director Ruba Atiye premiered at the Carthage Film Festival in 2019, and participated in the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival 2020; Sugar Cage (2019) by the Syrian director Zeina Al-Qahwaji premiered at Dok Leipzig; and The Fifth Story (2020) by the Iraqi director Ahmed Abd, won the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Documentary at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) Competition for First Appearance.
The Feature Length Documentary Competition also includes Exemplary Behaviour (2019) by Audrius Mickevicius and Nerijus Mileriuswhich won three film awards at Dok Leipzig (the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Documentary Film, the Golden Dove for the best Long Documentary and Animated Film, and the Prize of the Interreligious Jury); Punks (2019) by Maasja Ooms, the winner of Best Dutch Documentary, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing from Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA); Island of Souls (2020) by Lotta Petronella, which received an Honorable Mention at the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival (CPH: DOX); Tales from the Prison Cell (2021) by Abel Visky, which received a special mention at the Budapest International Documentary Festival; When the Persimmons Grew (2019) by Hilal Baydarov, the winner of the Interreligious Prize and the Jury Prize from Nyon Visions du Réel in 2019, and the Best Documentary Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival 2019.
The Short Documentary Competition includes 15 films, among them Behind a Transparent Cement Barrier (2020) by the award-winning Egyptian filmmaker Amr Bayomi, and A City and a Woman (2021) by the Lebanese director Nicolas Khoury.
The Short Fiction competition includes 16 films, among them Maradona’s Legs (2019) by the Palestinian director Firas Khoury, the winner of the Best Short Film from Montpellier Mediterranean Film Festival 2020; Somewhere in Time (2020) by the Emirati director Nawaf Al-Janahi; Al Sit (2020) by the Sudanese director Suzzanah Marghani, which won six international awards including the Jury Prize from the Busan International Short Film Festival 2021, and the Canal+ Award from Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival 2021; Bint Werdan (2020) by the Kuwaiti director Maysaa Almumin, which received an honorable mention at the Cinefantasy International Fantastic Cinema Festival in 2021; and Aicha by the Morrocan director Zakaria Nouri.
The Short Animation competition has 15 films including Falling into the Summit by the Jordanian filmmaker Aya Radi.
The Student Film competition, dedicated to Egyptian film school students, has 14 short fiction and documentary films from the film students of the German University in Cairo, the Jesuit Culture Centre of Alexandria, the Jesuit Cairo, the Cinema High Institute, the Zat Studio, the French University in Cairo, and the Beni Suef University (Faculty of Mass Media). According to Zakaria, the competition this year sees an increasing number of quality films, and for the first time there will be a financial award for the best student film.
Honoured is the renowned film critic Kamal Ramzy: “He is one of the pillars of Egyptian film criticism who had a great long career starting from 1965 serving the mission of raising awareness of cinematic culture through his lectures, articles, and books.” Also honoured is the name of the late animator Faiza Hussain. “She is one of the pioneers of animation in Egypt and a founding member of the Egyptian Society of Animation.” Honorary mentions go to the late star Ragaa Al-Geddawi (1934-2020) “as the daughter of Ismailia and for her honorable film career”, the late documentary film and television director and presenter Shafi Shalabi (1947- 2021). A special programme will be dedicated to some of his work’s screenings in addition to a seminar discussing his role in film and television.
Regarding this year’s publications, which used to be one of the fixtures of IIFFDS, they include a book celebrating the renowned film critic Kamal Ramzy, Unknown Pages in the History of Egyptian Cinema by the film critic Mahmoud Kasem, The Cinema of Youssef Edris by Atef Beshay, The History of Documentary Cinema in Egypt by Hashim Al Nahas and Papers on the Hybrid Cinema by a group of film critics belong to the Egyptian Film Critics Association.
According to Zakaria, the world is recovering from an extended freeze, and the Ismailia Film Festival is no exception. “It is going to take some time for people to put aside their fears of social gathering” but in every case the concept of a film festival is based on networking and social gathering. “We cannot turn film festivals into an online event because this is not the role of the film festival.” Still, he believes that future film festivals are going to be rather minimal in the number of screenings and activities.
“Instead, film festivals will be cosy events for filmmakers and audience to meet and to network. But ievery case film festival with their direct human interaction will remain,” he added. “One should not be afraid of online platforms because when television started to threaten the existence of cinema in the 1950s people realised later the importance of this device for the film industry itself. It is a matter of time to realise the pros and cons of the current changes.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly