Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The CIFET returns as CIFCET

Nehad Selaiha previews the new version of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFCET) which opens on 20 September with the word “contemporary” inserted in the title

he CIFET returns as CIFCET
he CIFET returns as CIFCET
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (CIFCET) 20-30 September 2016.

Save for one interruption in 1990, when its third edition was cancelled on account of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the annual Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET), established in 1988, was regularly held up until 2010, numbering twenty-two editions. In the turbulent years that followed the 25 January revolution in 2011 – years that witnessed the collapse of Mubarak’s regime, the interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power and the election of its candidate, Mohamed Mursi, president in 2012, the June 2013 mass protests against the systematic Islamisation of the country, which led to the removal of Mursi on 3 July, 2013 by the Armed Forces and the subsequent dismantling of the sit-ins held by his supporters at Al-Nahda and Rabaa squares on 14 August of the same year – the CIFET was naturally suspended. After the May, 2014 presidential elections, which brought Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to power, heralding a new period of relative stability, the theatre community in Egypt began to clamour for a resumption of the CIFET and their demand was enthusiastically supported by many of the festival’s friends abroad.

Despite its many flaws, shortcomings and contradictions (of which the most glaring was censorship), the CIFET proved a liberating/bonding experience for Egyptian and Arab artists, encouraging them to explore new, untrodden creative terrains, question and challenge established norms and connect with theatre artists from all over the world. It “managed over its many editions to deepen the idea of dialogue and of accepting the other and to create a space that allows for the free play of passions and the imagination, “to quote the words of its founder, painter and ex-minister of culture Farouk Hosni. Indeed, on more than one occasion, Martha Coigney, the honorary president of the International Theatre Institute (ITI) for thirty-seven years and head of the CIFET’s international selection committee for many editions, described this annual gathering of the thespian tribe as a “Cairo miracle” – “a logical, necessary, enormous miracle” that “transformed theater in the Arab world and beyond” and  “gave artists a sense of belonging to a world wider than the confinements of the boundaries of their own countries.” What a pity Martha, an ardent champion of the CIFET till the end, died earlier this year (on 5 April). It would have delighted her to learn that the “yearly miracle” she faithfully helped to nurture and passionately celebrated as “a treasure” that “returns each year to help save the world” will be back on the 20th of this month, albeit in an altered form, on a much smaller scale and under a modified name. We shall certainly miss her.

To bring the CIFET back to life was an uphill struggle even after the ouster of Mursi and his Muslim Brethren, notoriously opposed to creativity and freedom in any field of human activity. It took a year of heated negotiations between Gaber Asfour, the minister of culture in the first cabinet under the new regime, and theatre artists, lead by the theatre committee in the Supreme Council of Culture, to get the festival officially established. The bone of contention was the name: while the minister insisted on changing it to dissociate the new festival from any associations with the Mubarak regime, claiming that the CIFET had acquired a bad name and citing the ridiculous ‘moral’ objections and criticisms of its longstanding conservative opponents; the majority in the theatre community, particularly the younger generations who grew up with the CIFET and owed it a great deal, regarding it as a major part of their history and artistic development, vehemently argued against throwing out the baby with the bath water. The defects of the old festival should certainly be addressed, but the name itself, which has become an emblem of freedom and rebellion, should remain. When asked: ‘what’s in a name?’ they answered: everything – history, memory and identity.

Finally, a compromise was reached: a word was to be inserted in the title, making it The Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (CIFCET). Not a ‘new’ festival, but, in the words of the official announcement: “a revised version of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (1988-2010)”. The aims of the CIFCET are almost the same as those of the CIFET: “to broaden the space for mutual understanding among diverse populations and communities via the exemplary means of theatre and performance  ... [and]  ... introduce the latest developments in the international theatre scene to Egyptian and Arab audiences, while also serving as a showcase for local and regional theatre output for the benefit of specialists and interested festivals from all over the world”. Almost, but not quite: the CIFCET’s mission statement does not contain a single reference to promoting “the free play of passions and the imagination.”  

The CIFCET was officially established by ministerial decree in November 2014, with an executive board consisting of theatre expert, Hazem Azmi (who later resigned and was replaced by director Essam Al-Sayed), directors Dina Amin and Nasser Abdel-Moneim and playwright Abul-Ela Al-Salamouni, with playwright and academic Sameh Mahran as its head. Originally, the first edition was to be held from 21 November to 2 October, 2015 and an announcement was made accordingly, inviting applications for participation. The initial, ambitious dream that the festival would have a big enough budget to allow it to scout for the best shows on the international scene and pay them to come to Egypt (thus addressing the old and persistent complaint about the quality of many of the shows hosted by the CIFET, which paid no money and only provided food and accommodation in return for performances) soon evaporated. Indeed, no official budget, big or small, was allocated to the festival until long after the announced dates of the first edition had come and gone.

Describing the Board’s ordeal, Hazem Azmi wrote: “The festival’s Executive Board and supporting staff, mindful that time is of the essence in festival planning and that bureaucratic procedures to release the budget can take several precious months, decided to proceed with their work without any further delay, depending on their own personal resources and voluntary work, and safe in the official assurances that the budget would be released in due course.” Unfortunately, Gaber Asfour was removed from office in the spring of 2015 before settling the budget issue and was replaced by an Azharite minister. The result was that, according to Azmi’s narrative, “by the end of August, it became apparent that the situation was fast getting out of control. Despite pledges of support from the sitting Minister of Culture, originally an Associate Professor of history at the faith-based Al-Azhar University, the budget still remained unreleased, making it impossible for our Screening Committee to proceed with its work according to schedule. Many began to suspect that certain right-leaning voices close the Minister’s ear were conspiring to kill the festival by a slow budgetary asphyxia, while still avoiding a direct confrontation with the theatre community, which remains strongly eager for the festival to return. The Egyptian Centre of the International Theatre Institute (ITI) eventually intervened, issuing a strong worded statement, signed and endorsed by numerous members of the community, in which they warned of a worldwide scandal of unprecedented repercussions if the Minister and his aides continued to treat Egypt’s only official international theatre festival in such a cavalier way. Nothing, however, progressed till mid September when a much-awaited cabinet change finally happened, replacing the suspiciously inactive Minister of Culture with an ostensibly more liberal-minded one.”

Helmi Al-Namnam, the new minister of culture, not only managed to squeeze out of the ministry of finance an annual budget of ten million Egyptian pounds for the festival, but also dissociated the festival from the bureaucracy of the ministry by proclaiming it a separate, semi-independent, permanent entity within the ministry, similar to the Opera and the Cultural Palaces Organisation. In terms of management and administrative policy, the CIFCET follows in the footsteps of the CIFET. Like the CIFET, it has a selection committee to vet the shows; a list of honorees from different countries; will only cover accommodation, subsistence, and local transportation expenses for up to15 individuals per delegation, making other expenses, inclusive of flight tickets and shipment of equipment, the sole responsibility of the visiting delegation; and will feature a concurrent cultural programme of panel discussions, roundtables, post-show talks, workshops, and the publication of a number of books on theatre, especially translated for the festival.

There are differences, however. The CIFCET has abolished the CIFET competition, which used to sour the atmosphere, becoming a noncompetitive gathering. This, in turn, affected the selection criteria which no longer maintain any genre preferences. “Performances of all types are welcome on condition that they demonstrate their relevance to the contemporary theatre scene”, the call for participation said. Artists, however, are required, as was the case in the CIFET, to provide “a carefully thought-out production concept or other accompanying dramaturgical statements that explain the artistic ambitions of the work within its context of origin (particularly as pertaining to the more “experimental” performances)”, and all “text-based performances are expected to provide a full translation of the text (into either English or Arabic) or a detailed synopsis of it.” But whereas the CIFET’s selection committee was always composed of internationally-active specialists, like Martha Coigney, Ginka Tcholakova Henle, Jean Michel Meunier, and at one time John Elsom, the CIFCET’s this year was purely local.

Unlike the CIFET, too, which used to host over fifty foreign shows on average, the CIFCET will feature only seventeen visiting productions from fifteen Arab, African and other countries. These include: Tunisia’s Borg Lewseif (Lewseif Tower) and Al-Saberat (Patient Women); Lebanon’s Bas Ana Bahebak (But I Still Love You), about abusive relationships, researched and directed by Lena Al-Abyad, and Maya Zebib’s Huwa Allazi Raa (He Who Saw); Italy’s Clan Macbeth; Spain’s Pages from the Book of … ; Poland’s Puppet Moliere; Sweden’s Pillars of Blood; Russia’s We Shall Not Murder; Armenia’s Mercedes; Moldavia’s Last Night in Madrid; the United States’ Juaraz; Mexico’s Venom Hamlet;  Rwanda’s Ready, Play, and China’s Thunderstorm. Let us hope the quality of the performances will make up for their diminished number. The festival will also showcase fourteen Egyptian productions selected by a committee of critics from among the winners of awards in the last two editions of the National Theatre Festival and other critically acclaimed shows.  

Apart from a roundtable that will bring together heads of theatre festivals from all over the world, the CIFCET will hold four panel discussions, or colloquia, on the following topics: ‘Theatre and the Charges of Apostasy against Rational Thinking’; ‘Theatre and the Revolutionising of Aesthetic Structures’; ‘Arab Issues on the Western Stages’; and ‘The Role of Criticism in Consolidating Anti-disintegration Creativity’. The CIFCET board did well to limit the number of guest speakers on each panel, thus removing what used to be a recurrent criticism of the CIFET panels – namely, that they hosted far too many speakers, giving them far too little time. Some of the panels have only three speakers in each session; ‘The Arab Issues on Western Stages’ panel, for instance, will host six expatriate Arab theatre artists, writers, academics and directors in its two sessions. The first, moderated by Catherine Coray, will host Syrian/Austrian actress Maha Shahlawi, British/Canadian playwright Karim Fahmi and Iraqi/British playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak ; the speakers in the second will be the Iraqi/Danish director Fadil Sudani; the Iraqi/Swedish critic/academic/director Hussein Al-Aasari; and British/Italian actor Fabio Abraham.

More valuable still, particularly for young artists, will be the workshops which boast some very impressive names in the world of theatre. There will be five workshops in all: a playwriting one by eminent American playwright Karen Malpede (who was a guest of the CIFET twice); an acting/directing one (entitled ‘Viewpoints’ on the method of Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki’) by  Katherine Coray, the director of the US-Middle East Playwright Exchange at the Lark Play Development Center in New York; a theatre-directing one by Torange Yeghiazarian, the founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions and ReOrient annual festival in the US (an artist who she has devoted her professional life to exploring Middle Eastern cultures and identities through theatre arts); a workshop on ‘Scenography and Directing’ by Indian playwright and theater director Abhishek Majumdar; and a ‘Physical Theatre: Acting and Movement’ workshop by Chilean actor Carlos Diaz.

Torange Yeghiazarian also appears on the list of the CIFCET honorees, which also includes Kenyan actress Mumbi Kaigwa; Chinese playwright and director Lu Ang; Nigerian playwright Femi Osofisan; Egyptian actor Gamil Rateb and the Emirati Mohamed Al-Afkham, the first Arab president of the International Theatre Institute. This is all the information I could gather about the CIFCET at this point. I tried to get some tips on which of the guest shows to go for, but was given none. In any case, they are not very many and I suppose one can manage to see them all since each runs for two nights. But at least I know that the Chinese Thunderstorm will play at the opening ceremony and the Egyptian Ya Sem will grace the closing one.

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