Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fiesta's end?

Will the Ministry of Culture stop staging cultural festivals in Egypt? Nevine El-Aref finds out

photo: Mohamed Wassim Click to view caption
Mohamed Abu Saeida
photo: Mohamed Wassim

Since 1976, when the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) was established, Egypt had become the leading Arab country for cultural, arts and music festivals “ê" until the January revolution. A few days ago Minister of Culture Saber Arab made statements that were interpreted to mean that the ministry would no longer support festivals. By then he had already failed to provide the funding agreed on for the Luxor European Film Festival held two weeks ago.

After 14 months of preparation for the next round of the CIFF by the Cairo International Film Festival Organisation (CIFFO) “ê" an NGO headed by film critic Youssef Cherif Rizkalla, which former minister Emad Abu Ghazi had contracted to do the work “ê" the ministry broke the agreement, prompting many in the film industry to accuse Arab of implementing conservative and anti-art Muslim Brotherhood policies. Director Hala Khalil, for example “ê" a member of CIFFO “ê" says CIFFO was formed with the express purpose of organising CIFF, since the ministry lacked a dedicated team. To claim back the festival organisation at this point can only be interpreted in the light of exercising greater control over it. Film critic Tarek El-Shinawi feels the decision, designed to divide the parties into a with-us and an against-us camp, is in breach of the law“ê¶ But what does the ministry itself have to say?

"All such accusations are unfounded," Mohamed Abu Saeida, the head of the Cultural Development Fund (CDF) and the ministry undersecretary for Arab's office says. At his contemporary-style office in the ministry's Zamalek headquarters, Abu Saeida is flooded with files; he is forever juggling meetings and phone calls. He says it is not true that the ministry will no longer support festivals; the announcement, which was miscommunicated by the media, was that it would only support CIFF and the Cairo International Film Festival for Children (CIFFC), since many NGOs besides CIFFO are organising events they want the ministry to fund at a time when the budget is at an all-time low because the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) still refuses to pay the 10 percent of its budget allocated to the Ministry of Culture by presidential decree, among other reasons.

During the extremely short-lived tenure of Abu Ghazi, the Ministry of Culture had encouraged NGOs to help in promoting cultural awareness and to share in cultural activities, extending bridges of cooperation “ê" something that found expression in the deal with CIFFO and Al Fan Midan (Art is a Square) “ê" and Abu Saeida says this remains its policy: "But we have to engage civil, national and international bodies to reduce the burden on the government, which is going through economic difficulties." Festivals are very important, he argues, but their organisers should take financial responsibility for them. The ministry will always extend moral support and provide festival publications free of charge, as well as making available spaces, whether its own, those of the MSA or the Ministry of Tourism; he cites the MSA-managed Karnak Temple as a venue for the Luxor Festival, indicating that the Ministry of Tourism contributed flights and accommodation to the event.

The root of the trouble with CIFF, Abu Saeida explains, started some months ago when screenwriter Mamdouh El-Leithy filed a law suit against the Ministry of Culture accusing it of depriving the Association of Cinema Writers (ACW), the entity legally responsible for CIFF for two years in a row before 2011, when the festival wasn't held, of the right to organise CIFF this year. Although the court verdict issued three weeks ago was not in favour of El-Leithy, the judge also declared there had not been enough transparency in the selection process of the new organisation. It is this that resulted in the dismissal of CIFFO; interested parties should apply for the task anew. "How can the Ministry of Culture go through the whole process again within under two months to meet the CIFF deadline?" Abu Saeida asks rhetorically.

He confirms that the festival will nonetheless be held as scheduled on 27 November in order not to lose its International Federation of Film Producer Associations (FIAPF) accreditation. A Supreme Festival Committee will be established not only to organise CIFF but also to manage the selection of festivals to be fully or partially supported by the ministry, which is undergoing an overhaul to improve the incomes of its employees and raise its overall annual budget anyway. The ministry does have productive departments that could provide it with sufficient funds such as the Circus, the Cairo Opera House, the CDF Ceramic Centre and many others. Abu Saeida says the attendance of some cultural performances held in these spaces will be for a small fee: the Tanura troupe performances at Wikalet Al-Ghouri, for example, will be for LE3 for Egyptians and LE30 for foreigners. A marketing department is to be instituted to promote ministry activities and profucts.

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