Cairo Film Festival kicks off amid hope to restore lost glory

A combination of 30 short and feature films will premiere during the festival, which closes November 29.
Friday 22/11/2019
Guests arrive at the opening ceremony of the 41st edition of Cairo International Film Festival at the Cairo Opera House, November 20. (AFP)
A matter of quality not glitters. Guests arrive at the opening ceremony of the 41st edition of Cairo International Film Festival at the Cairo Opera House, November 20. (AFP)

CAIRO - Organisers of the 41st Cairo Film Festival said they focused on quality and variety in the latest selection of films. They said those aspects represent the quickest way to promote the artistic value represented by the festival while restructuring the festival’s budget so that most funds go towards attracting high-quality films rather than enticing high-profile personalities.

The festival acquired the rights to 90 films for the first time in the Middle East and North Africa. A combination of 30 short and feature films will premiere during the festival, which closes November 29.

A total of 150 films from 63 countries and 20 virtual reality films representing 15 countries are participating in the festival, a programme that demonstrates the organisers’ awareness of the importance of keeping pace with developments in the global film industry.

Film critic Ahmed Shawky, acting artistic director of the festival, said the Cairo Film Festival aims to enrich cultural diversity in the minds of moviegoers.

Producer Mohamed Hefzy, the festival chairman, said this year’s edition addresses some of the negative aspects of previous festivals to return the Cairo Film Festival to prominence. Organisers focused on attracting a large number of guests, on reaching the greatest number of moviegoers, on achieving greater dissemination internally and externally and on rebuilding a respectable reputation in the cinema community.

He said in a statement that the festival was seeking to create a desire in film-makers to enter their films at the festival and that would attract works of great artistic value. In return, the festival would benefit the professionals by creating public interest in the films and stimulating discussions about them, in addition to promoting local and Arab film industries.

The Cairo Film Festival began in 1976 and was organised by the Egyptian Association of Film Writers and Critics until 1983. Starting in 1985, the festival was managed by a committee from the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and members of the Association of Film Writers and Critics and of the Artists’ Unions. A 1990 report by the International Federation of Associations of Film Producers said the Cairo Film Festival ranked second among the most important capital festivals, behind the London Film Festival.

The Cairo festival is facing a fierce competition from El Gouna Film Festival, which achieved fame after only three editions. There were fears that the official Egyptian cinema festival might not be able to compete, given generous funding enjoyed by El Gouna through the financial backing of Egyptian businessmen who own the Red Sea resort of El Gouna.

The Cairo festival budget constitutes quite a heavy burden for the festival. Hefzy said he tried to get around that difficulty by promoting world premieres of participating films. Those events would require the presence in Cairo of the film-makers so they could gauge for themselves public reaction to their films.

Hefzy said the Cairo festival has a budget of $2.5 million, with 40% of that coming from a government subsidy. He said he was considering filling the deficit through donations from the private sector and planned to direct those funds to hosting the largest number of festival guests, in addition to covering the costs of the opening and closing ceremonies.

He pointed out that, because of the historic reputation of the festival, 15% of its foreign guests travelled to Cairo at their own expense. This enabled the festival to spend on screening rights and translating films to provide interesting material for festivalgoers.

Hefzy stressed that he is keen on ensuring the participation of quality films and on receiving guests properly, rather than on running after international stars just for show. Each actor whose film is being screened at the festival would be welcomed and honoured so his or her presence would be a contribution to the festival and not just a photo opportunity on the red carpet.

This current edition of the festival faced many obstacles, including the sudden death of film critic Youssef Cherif Rizkallah, the festival’s initial artistic director and one of its main pillars. To honour Rizkallah, the session was named for him. Festival organisers appointed Shawky, a student of Rizkallah’s, as artistic director.

The festival schedule calls for the screening of newly released films, shown in Egypt for the first time, and others that have won awards at major festivals. There will be a stronger presence of US films compared with previous editions. Their absence in previous editions was because of difficulties in obtaining screening rights.

The festival is giving a larger share of the screen to Arab films to accommodate the increase in film production in the Arab world. It is highlighting documentaries and moving away from the heavier presence of European films in previous years.

Twelve Arab feature films are in competition for the Arab Film Horizons Award. There are two more Arab films competing with five films from other countries in the Critics Week competition. The Cinema of Tomorrow competition features 11 films.

Mexican cinema is the guest of honour. The official competition also includes 15 films from the Czech Republic, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Mexico, Egypt, Bhutan, Lithuania, the Philippines, Ukraine, Brazil, Singapore and Romania.

The international competition jury will be led by American director and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan. Other members are Mexican director and producer Michel Franco, Belgian director and producer Marion Hansel, Moroccan producer Lamia Chraibi, Egyptian writer Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, Italian director Daniele Luchetti and Chinese actress Qin Hailu.

This year’s competition includes world premieres of six films. The festival’s management made sure the jury included an Egyptian member, which is reflected in the quality and type of the films selected, as most of them deal with humanitarian and social issues. A good number of intellectuals serve on the festival’s various juries and that marks a return to a strong tradition of the Cairo Film Festival.

Seven films are participating in parallel competitions in addition to the Egyptian film in the international competition, four of which are documentaries. The Egyptian film “Nawm al-Deek fil-Habal,” which deals with asylum and refugees, was entered in the Horizons of Arab Cinema competition, while the two short documentaries — “A Picture for Each Sarina Ghara” and “Searching for a Gazelle” — are involved in the Cinema of Tomorrow international competition.