Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 November 2005
Issue No. 770
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Facts and figures

Mohamed El-Assyouti previews this year's Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF)

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Clint Eastwood's A Million Dollar Baby

Over 130 films from 50 countries will be screened during the 29th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), which takes place from 29 November to 9 December 2005. They are figures of which the festival president and First Undersecretary at the Ministry of Culture Cherif El-Shoubashi is proud. "If you consider that out of the 191 countries party to the United Nations those that produce films number around 70, then CIFF will be screening representative work from 80 per cent of film-producing nations," he says.

Cairo's three-decade-old festival is currently facing competition from younger events in the region, including Dubai's film festival, which held its first round last year, the Marrakech festival and the Carthage one. Yet El-Shoubashi believes Cairo will retain its leading position: "First CIFF is the only festival in the Arab world, the Middle East and Africa recognised as Category 'A' by the Fédération Internationale de Producteurs de Films (FIPF). Egypt is also the only country in the region that has a film industry. Our neighbours produce distinguished films but they are few and far between. They don't have a sustained industry. They don't have stars known all over the region, nor the depth of cinematic history possessed by Egypt."

El-Shoubashi welcomes the fact that the Arab world is hosting more film festivals, not least because they focus attention on the culture, art and creativity of the region and in doing so help correct the distorted image of the Arab world as a hotbed of terrorism. Funding, which comes mainly from the ministries of culture and tourism, remains a headache, though El-Shoubashi insists that the emergence of other festivals -- some with budgets almost 20 times that of Cairo -- does not pose a serious threat to CIFF's reputation and position.

This year sees several additions to the festival, including a jury of critics from the Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique (FIPRESCI) that will operate in tandem with the international jury. FIPRESCI jurors include György Bàron, veteran film scholar and head of the Hungarian Society of Film Critics; Grégory Valens, young French filmmaker, vice-president of FIPRESCI and editor of its web site; Egyptian critic Essam Zakariya; Tunisian critic Mohamed Naceur Sardi and Nigerian critic Oluseyi Steve Ayorinde.

The international jury includes Chinese producer and director He Ping, generally credited with establishing the sword fight sub-genre dubbed Chinese Western, Indian producer, actor and director Akbar Khan, known for big budget historical films, German producer and director Percy Adlon, Dutch producer Petra Goedings, Italian composer Manuel De Sica, actresses Thalia Argiriou from Greece, Svetlana Khodchenkova from Russia, Carmen Leboss from Lebanon, Samiha Ayoub from Egypt and Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah, whose recent Bab Al-Shams (Gate of the Sun), a four-and-a-half- hour epic spanning 50 years of Palestinian history, was screened out of competiton at Cannes last year.

Work by Ping, Khan, Adlon and Goedings -- Warriors of Heaven and Earth, Taj Mahal, Baghdad Café and Zwarte Zwanen (Black Swans) respectively -- will be screened during the festival, in addition to three films starring Leboss -- Ziad Doueiri's Bayrout Al-Gharbiya (West Beirut, 1998) and Lila dit ça (Lila Says, 2005) and Danielle Arbid's Maarek Hob (In the Battlefields, 2004).

Among CIFF's special sections this year is one dedicated to new Lebanese cinema, which will include screenings of Assad Fouladkar's Lama Hikyit Maryam (When Maryam Spoke Out, 2001), Jean Chamoun's Tayf Al-Madina (In the Shadows of the City, 2000), Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige's Al-Bayt Al-Zahri (The Pink House, 1999) and Samir Habchi's Al-E'ssar (The Tornado, 1992).

The contemporary Arab cinema section will include five films from Tunisia, Algeria, Syria and Iraq, while a third section focuses on international directors and actors of Arab origin, and is scheduled to include the Swedish film Zozo (2005), by Lebanese-born Josef Fares, the story of a 10-year-old who leaves civil war stricken Lebanon for Sweden; Al-Janna Al-Aan (Paradise Now, 2005), a French, German, Dutch and Palestinian co-production directed by Hany Abu Assad focusing on two suicide bombers in Tel Aviv; Private (2003), an Italian production directed by Saverio Costanzo and starring Palestinian actor Mohamed Bakri as a pacifist English literature professor and father of five who finds his house turned into a military base by Israeli soldiers; Al-Khobz Al-Hafi (For Bread Alone, 2004), an Italian, French, Moroccan co-production directed by Rachid Benhadj based on a Mohamed Shukri novel; the Swiss, German, French film Snow White (2005) directed by the Iraqi-Swiss Samir Banout; the Canadian Promise Her Anything (1999) and French C'est pas moi, c'est l'autre (Police Thief, 2004), both directed by Alain Zaloum and produced by his brother Jean Zaloum and the American The Final Cut (2003), starring Robin Williams and Mira Sorvino, the directorial debut of the young Jordanian- American Omar Naim.

The festival's largest special section, though, will showcase films from China, this year's guest of honour. The festival administration selected China out of the belief that it "is an emerging world power not only economically and politically but also culturally", says El-Shoubashi. Twenty-five Chinese films, the majority made in the last five years, will be screened, including Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers (2004), which will open the festival, Yimou's Not One Less (1998), Chen Kaige's Together (2003); Zhang Yang's Shower (2000) and Feng Xiaogang's A Sigh (2000).

The festival will also include a section focusing on bio-pics of political leaders including Oliver Hirschbiegel's Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004), depicting the last hours of Adolf Hitler, played by Bruno Ganz; the South Korean Gu ddae gu saramdeul (The President's Last Bang, 2005), directed by Im Sang-soo and depicting the 26 October 1979 assassination of the president by his chief of central intelligence, as well as three HBO American television network productions: Richard Loncraine's The Gathering Storm (2002) about Winston Churchill -- played by Albert Finney -- and the build-up to WWII; John Frankenheimer's Path to War (2002) about Lyndon Baines Johnson -- played by Michael Gambon -- as he prepares to increase US military involvement in Vietnam and Frank Pierson's Truman (1995) -- played by Gary Sinise. Two Egyptian films -- Mohamed Fadel's Nasser '56 and Mohamed Khan's Ayyam Al-Sadat (Days of Sadat) -- will be shown in the section, both starring the late Ahmed Zaki.

Zaki will also be the subject of a special tribute, which includes the screening of Al-Hobb Fawqa Hadabit Al-Haram (Love on the Pyramid Plateau) directed by Atef El-Tayeb and based on a Naguib Mahfouz short story; Ard Al-Khof (Land of Fear) directed by Dawoud Abdel-Sayed and Al-Bidaya (The Beginning), Salah Abu Seif's political satire about a group of plane-crash survivors who try to govern themselves. In this last film Zaki plays opposite veteran actor Gamil Ratib who, with veteran actress Lubna Abdel-Aziz and screenplay writer Waheed Hamid, will also be honoured by this round of CIFF.

Ratib's career began in international cinema where he acted in films like Carol Reed's Trapeze (1956), David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Marcel Carné's Les jeunes loupes (The Young Wolves, 1968); his more recent work includes Youssef Chahine's Adieu Bonaparte (Goodbye Bonaparte, 1985) and Tunisian Férid Boughedir's Un été à la Goulette (1996) . An octogenarian, Ratib appears regularly in Egyptian soap operas and occasionally films.

Abdel-Aziz first co-starred with singer Abdel-Halim Hafiz in Salah Abu Seif's Al-Wisada Al-Khaliya (The Vacant Pillow, 1958), and quickly established herself as a leading actress, appearing in films by Abu Seif, Ramses Naguib and others. Her last film roles were in the late 1960s, though she continues to present a radio programme and writes a regular column for Al-Ahram Weekly. The festival will screen Ana Hora (I'm Free) starring Abdel-Aziz and directed by Abu Seif.

Waheed Hamid has written regularly for film as well as TV and radio since the mid-1970s, collaborating with stars such as Adel Imam, Ahmed Zaki and Layla Olwi and directors including Samir Seif and Sherif Arafa. His films tend to spice high doses of entertainment with socio-political criticism. His most popular film, Al-Irhab wal-Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab), directed by Arafa and starring Imam, will be screened.

CIFF will also honour its two star guests, American actor Morgan Freeman and French actress Leslie Caron, screening Clint Eastwood's A Million Dollar Baby (2004), starring Freeman, Eastwood and Hilary Swank, and Vincent Minnelli's classic musical An American in Paris (1951), starring Caron and Gene Kelly. Russian director Karen Shakhnazarov will also be honoured with screenings of four of his films.

CIFF's other honorees include Mohamed Mounir and Hanan Turk for their roles in Lebanese director Jocelyn Saab's Dunya (2005), a controversial film focusing on censorship and the oppression of women in Egypt, and the late Syrian-American producer Mustapha Akkad will be honoured.

CIFF's opening ceremony, directed by Intissar Abdel-Fattah, will feature a song written by Medhat El-Adl and performed by Youssra, singer Khaled Selim and actors Abdel-Moneim Madbouli and Gamil Ratib. And for the first time festival-goers will be able to choose the film they want to see by viewing clips on an outdoor screen that will be erected along the Corniche.

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