In its 40th edition, Cairo International Film Festival reinvents itself

The makeover of the 40th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival in November revived hopes about the event’s future.
Thursday 06/12/2018
Jordanian actress Saba Moubarak poses on the red carpet at the closing ceremony of the 40th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival, on November 29. (AFP)
Adventurous spirit. Jordanian actress Saba Moubarak poses on the red carpet at the closing ceremony of the 40th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival, on November 29. (AFP)

CAIRO - The highly commended comeback of the Cairo International Film Festival was applauded by cinema-lovers who had been downbeat about the prospects of the annual cinema event.

The oldest in the Arab region, the Cairo International Film Festival lost much of its allure in recent years to newer events celebrating the cinema industry, both at national and regional levels.

A lack of funds had left the festival incapable of renewing itself for several years. This was compounded by the absence of official interest in keeping the festival alive after Egypt was shaken by the “Arab spring.”

Nevertheless, the makeover of the 40th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival in November revived hopes about the event’s future.

"We tried to breathe new life into the festival so that it can become strong again to match its history and Egypt's cultural importance," said festival President Mohamed Hefzi. "We introduced new activities and were a bit adventurous in contacting international cinema-makers."

The outcome of the new approach introduced by Hefzi, who at 43 is the youngest president in the history of the festival, was outstanding. Some 160 films from 59 countries participated in this year’s festival, including 15 films that had never been screened before or were shown for the first time outside their home countries.

Many local, Arab and international cinema celebrities attended the event, including those participating in the selected films. The festival included many activities, seminars and workshops.

A forum that brought together creative film-makers from various countries, producers and potential investors in the cinema industry was also organised during the 10-day event.

The Golden Pyramid Award for the best film was awarded to “A Twelve-Year Night,” a joint Uruguayan-Argentine-Spanish production directed by Alvaro Brechner about the left-wing Tupamaros urban guerrilla group in Uruguay. The film speaks of the twists and turns of the real-life story of three guerrilla group members who spent 12 years in jail.

The Silver Pyramid Award was won by “Manta Ray,” a feature film about the plight of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar. The film, a joint Thai-French-Chinese production, also won the Special Jury Prize for Phuttiphong Aroonpheng as best director.

The Egyptian film “Poisonous Roses,” directed by Fawzi Saleh, won the award for the Best Arab Film and the Salah Abu Seif Prize. The film follows the life of Saqr, who wants to flee life in the Egyptian tanners’ district. Based on a novel by Egyptian writer Ahmed Zaghloul al-Shiti, it introduced viewers to a new perspective of Cairo’s tanneries.

Organising the festival with a limited budget was the biggest challenge facing Hefzi. Egypt’s cultural authorities offered the slender budget of $2.2 million but even that was the largest budget in festival history.

The Cairo International Film Festival had lost ground to other local and international movie festivals in recent years. Regional festivals and the local El Gouna Film Festival, sponsored by communications and contracting moguls Naguib and Samih Sawiris, have eclipsed the Cairo International Film Festival in the last few years.

“The rival festivals had a lot of funds for awards to give away to producers and participating movie stars," said Youssef Sherif Rizkallah, the festival's art director. "The Cairo Film Festival did not have enough money to compete."

The festival’s organising committee enlisted the support of local and regional businesses to fund financial rewards for the winning films. The rewards in some of the categories reached $20,000.

"As a strategy, enlisting help from sponsors was very effective," Rizkallah said. "It helped us offer compensation to the producers who travelled thousands of miles to be part of our event."

The festival also benefited from the disappearance of major regional rivals such as the Dubai and Abu Dhabi film festivals, he noted.

Hefzi and his organising team have started preparing for the next edition of the festival. He said they would build on this year’s success to create a more promising future for the festival.

"This festival had seen better days when it was the most important cinema event in the region," Hefzi said. "We need to work really hard to revive its past glories."