Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 December 2010
Issue No. 1027
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nefertiti and the Cairo Film Festival

Film posters are not what they used to be, reports Venus Fouad

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The Arabic word for festival, mahrajan, comes from a composite Persian word. The first part, mahr, means 'sun' or 'soul'. The second, jan, means 'love' or 'life'. In other words, a festival is an occasion to love the soul or enjoy the sun.

In modern times festivals often denote a cultural event, one of a specific nature that calls for emphasis, and one that has a set date, venue, and known sponsors and programmes, which brings us to the topic of this article.

The Cairo Film Festival deserved to have a poster that would highlights its message and draw the attention of the public to its various functions. Unfortunately, we had the face of Queen Nefertiti gazing down at us from the poster, as if this were a tourist event and not a gathering for film lovers. When Nefertiti was not the main character in the poster, we had a profile of an Oriental damsel who might have been Indian, or perhaps Arabian, as if this were a cosmetics or jewellery festival that had nothing to do with cinema.

The colours chosen for the posters were also dismal -- too bland to attract the eye and too cold to make a visual impression. A splash of red or even orange could have helped, but that was not to be. To make things worse, the festival's name was de-emphasised. So imperceptible was it in the poster that motorists would have had to park their cars to figure out what event this was. This is unfortunate, because cinema people are known for their flair with posters. What happened?

I would have thought that a poster for a film festival would have something cinematic about it, a backdrop that signalled something about the art form, and a sophistication that reminded one of the visual capabilities of the industry.

Alas, the opposite was true. Yet how hard would it have been for the organisers to run a competition among artists for the design of the poster? Think of those thousands of talented artists and art students in this country. Would they not have welcomed a chance to show off their talent? Would they not have jumped at the opportunity to do something creative, and perhaps at the same time get a foot in the door with the film industry?

As it turned out, the poster was sterile and lacking in dynamism. Usually the eye moves in a circular way around a poster, looking for something interesting, a focal point perhaps. This was not possible with the main poster because the picture was stuck on one side, ending any possibility of visual exploration. Shall I go on?

Posters aside, this year's festival got quite a few things right. For one thing, it paid tribute to those Egyptian expats who have left their mark on international cinema. One is Fouad Said, winner of an Academy Award for technical excellence for his invention of the Cinemobile, a cinema studio on wheels that is said to have saved the American cinema industry in the 1960s and 70s and is still very much in use today. Another is Egyptian-Canadian television producer Milad Besadada for his successful shows on CTV. Khalid Abdalla, a British actor of Egyptian origin who has acted in international films, including The Green Zone, was given a tribute award. So were local actresses Safia El-Emari and Laila Elwi and cameraman Ramsis Marzouk. French actress Juliette Binoche, Korean actress Yoon Jung Hee and American actor Richard Gere also received tribute awards.

One of the most exciting categories of the festival is "Outside the Competition". This year, 11 films were screened in this category to great success. One was the Argentinean film The Secret In Their Eyesi, which won an Oscar for best foreign film this year. Others were Certified Copy by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, the Korean film Poetry and the British film Another Year directed by Mike Leigh.

The selection of Arab films was even better than that of foreign films, especially for films from the Gulf, Morocco and Egypt. Iraq alone entered four full feature films: Ibn Babel (Son of Babel) by Mohamed Al-Daragi, Hayy Khayalatal-Maata (Neighbourhood of the Scarecrows) by Ali Hassan; Darbat al-Bedaya (Kick Start) by Shawkat Amin, and Motashabek bel Lon al-Azraq (Grid in Blue) by Haydar Rashid. The United Arab Emirates asserted its presence with Dar al-Hay (Neighbourhood House) by Ali Mostafa, while Bahrain submitted Hanin (Yearning) by Huseein Al-Holeibi.

Interestingly enough, Gulf cinema was not only present with film. Saudi Director Haifa Ala-Mansur came in as member of the Judges' Panel, which was led by Egyptian producer Mohamed El-Adl.

Egyptian participation doubled this year, with four films in the competition -- three of them screened for the first time. These were Al-Shawq (Desire) by Khaled El-Haggar, Microphone "by Ahmed Abdallah, Al-Tariq Al-Daiyri (Ring Road) by Tamer Ezzat and Al-Bab (The Door) by Mohamed Abdel-Hafez.

A lovely and quite edifying touch was the screening of films from the 1950s and 60s, a practice that serves to illustrate the immense changes international cinema has undergone in the past 50 years or so. The oldies were: the 1946 British film of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra directed by Gabriel Pascal and starring Vivien Leigh; the 1954 US film The Valley of the Kings by Robert Pirosh and the 1961 Italian film Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile by Fernando Cherchio.

And that was just the films. Remember the posters of the old days? To rehash: promotion is a major part of a festival's footwork, and it must be done right. Posters are important, and a competition among young artists to design them might not be a bad idea.

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