Among the highlights of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) this year is the large number of films that won prestigious awards at international festivals, as well as the distinguished list of Arab and Egyptian titles, In light of the great competition for Arab films among the major festivals in the region, especially with the first session of the Red Sea Film Festival (RSFF) taking place one day after the closing ceremony of the Cairo Festival, there was also the presence of prominent international names including iconic Serbian director Emir Kusturica as head of the international competition jury the.
According to Mohsen, the first round of the Red Sea Festival was no cause for concern. In fact CIFF and RSFF cooperated in many ways. “We do compete for the best films, but we also integrate and collaborate. For example, the Red Sea Festival contributes an award to a film project in the Cairo Film Connection. Personally, I hope that cooperation and understanding can increase and take place on a larger scale among all Arab film festivals.” Mohsen is pleased with the number of Arab premieres CIFF managed to obtain. “I can’t predict what will happen in the coming years, but having a festival like the RSFF and the huge support platform with which it provides the film industry is good for the industry and therefore for all festivals in the region.” As for Arab films, Mohsen feels there were plenty of quality films including world premieres, three of them in the international competition: Abusaddam by Nadine Khan, Tomorrow by Dhafer El Abidine, and Daughters of Abdel-Rahman by Zaid Abu Hamdan. “I consider them to be among the most important works in Arab cinema this year.”
Mohsen points out an important attraction of the prestigious Cairo International Film Festival: “It is in its 43rd round, which is a very long time for a film festival. I think meeting the Cairo Festival audience is an important experience for filmmakers. The history of the festival and the experience it has accumulated with the audience is something that will continue to characterise it and be a strong point,” he says. For him, in the last three or four years, under the direction of Mohamed Hefzy, CIFF has come a very long way in terms of organisation and screenings, and there are continuous attempts to develop and respond to the aspirations and expectations of the audience. “For example, this year the number of Arab film screenings rose in response to the audience’s demands, and that naturally created more space for filmmakers to meet with their audience”.
Of Tomorrow, the first feature film to be directed and produced by Tunisian acting star Dhafer El Abidine, Mohsen says, “When I first saw the film, I was definitely curious to see what Dhafer El Abidine could do as a director. It was a surprise to me that the film is a mature accomplishment in terms of directing in addition to its daring subject.” For Mohsen it was the artistic achievement of the film – which ended up winning the International Federation of Film Critics (Fipresci) – that qualified it to be in the international competition, not the name of its director.
The international competition selection was intended to balance art house films with films of wider appeal. “I wanted to break down the barriers between ‘festival films’ and ‘market films’, as we call them in Egypt. It is a goal I started working on during last round,” Mohsen says. This year, he tried to include genre films as well: Nadine Khan’s second feature film, Abusaddam, for example, which may be said to fall into the category of generic comedy. “It is one of the best Egyptian films to participate in the international competition for many years, and a very interesting piece. It is a movie that has a lot of attractions for the audience: a sweet story, excellent acting by Ahmed Dash and Mohamed Mamdouh, and artistic quality. It’s a movie based on a pivotal character, but it is also a rare kind of movie, largely unheard of in Egyptian cinema.”
One curatorial highlight he is particularly happy with is the space made for programmers to communicate directly with production and distribution companies, speeding up selection. “This year we have the largest number of films that won prestigious awards in the most important festivals, including San Sebastian, Sundance, Cannes, Venice, Berlin which is an unprecedented achievement in both quantity and quality. Of course, awards were not what motivated us to choose the films, but the extent of their impact. A large number of the films selected in CIFF programmes were also nominated to represent their country at the Oscars. That is not something we intended but it confirms we’re on the right path.” This year films are being screened at the historic but also technologically very apt Ewart Hall of the American University in Cairo, with which there was greater cooperation than ever before.
Two Egyptian documentaries, Hala Galal’s From Cairo (winner of the best Arab non-fiction film in the Horizons of Arab Cinema competition) and Nabil El-Shazly’s Nile Crocodile, screening as part of the special screenings programme, are also worth mentioning. “From Cairo is a simple and profound work of ary. The film presents three characters, comparing and contrasting them in a way that seems spontaneous though it is in fact very carefully thought out.” Nile Crocodile is about the Egyptian swimming legend Abdellatief Abouheif – who is a household name though few people know anything about him beyond the fact that he is a champion swimmer, but who also happens to be the director’s friend – which Mohsen sees as a unique and fascinating piece of cinema primarily about that friendship but also about showcasing a lot of never-before-seen archival footage of Abu Haif’s life and career.
The debate sparked by the screening, a few months ago, of the movie Feathers at the El Gouna Film Festival has raised fears of self-censorship and restrictions on artistic expression. How did this crisis affect the way films were selected at the Cairo Festival? Mohsen says the fact that films go through the censorship authority before being screened is something that exists all the time. But there is always a margin for discussion, negotiation and understanding with the censors. “The goal for us is not the number of times the film is screened, but that the film is shown well in the presence of the audience and the media, and that there is good interaction. So showing a film one time is better than not showing it. The censorship authority understands the importance and value of the Cairo Festival.” Yet Mohsen’s real bet is on the awareness of the public, the press and critics: there will always be a way to discuss films instead of demanding that they should be banned.