Monday,18 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)
Monday,18 June, 2018
Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Canal screens

Al-Ahram Weekly met with film critic Essam Zakariya, the new president of the Ismailia Film Festival


In 1991 Hisham Al-Nahhas – one of Egypt’s most prominent documentary filmmakers as well as respected film critic and the then director of the National Cinema Centre (NCC) – announced the first edition of the Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts (IIFFDS), of which he was the founding president.

Over 18 rounds, the NCC director has automatically been appointed president of the IIFFDS, with a freelance artistic director taking charge of the film selection. And although Al-Nahhas, having maintained his position for several years, managed to establish and improve the event, once he was replaced as NCC director it was as though the festival was being founded anew. The IFFDS was halted from 1994 to 2000 while Samir Gharib was the head of the NCC, not to be resumed until Ali Abu Shadi took over in 2001. In January 2017 Khaled Abdel-Gelil, the previous head censor, was appointed NCC director, and his first decision was to appoint a president for the INFFDS for the first time in its history, with the intention of putting an end to the uncertainty and dependence which the festival has suffered from being tied to NCC leadership.

Film critic Essam Zakariya, who had been appointed artistic director of the IIFFDS in December 2016, became the first president of the festival under a new statute. “The new position is designed to give more stability and sustainability to the administration of the film festival,” Zakariya says. “The  artistic director used to be in charge of only the artistic aspects of the festival, but all the other procedures including the opening and the closing ceremony were the responsibility of the NNC director. This was a confusing situation,” he explains. Under the new statute, the president of the festival has more responsibilities not limited to the artistic side, while the NCC director is freed to undertake other duties.

The new step, according to Zakariya, is part of a bigger plan to establish a permanent  administration for the IIFFDS with a president contracted for a specific number of years and permanent teamwork by year-round, dedicated employees of the NCC. “It’s a big step for reorganising and restructuring the festival and the NCC in general,” Zakariya believes, “though you shouldn’t expect a dramatic change within a three-month period.” That is, before the next round of the IIFFDS (19-25 April), the 19th, which will honour Al-Nahhas and the late director Mohammed Kamel Al-Kalioubi. The main objective for the 19th IIFFDS, rather, is to garner popularity within the Suez Canal city itself: “This year the festival slogan is ‘The Ismailia Festival is for the people of Ismailia’,” Zakariya reveals.

In a speech he made during the 18th IIFFDS, after all, Al-Nahhas stated that one of the main aims of the festival is “to expand cultural activities outside Cairo where almost all cultural events exclusively take place.” Year after year, this target had become less visible with the festival turning into a camp for outsiders who come from Cairo to spend few days attending screenings and fringe activities while the residents of the governorate are barely aware of anything going on. “Last year some steps were taken towards deepening the connection with the locals, and this year we are building on those steps. We are trying to introduce an attractive film list to the audience in a governorate where there are only two cinemas.” The quality of the programme remains paramount, but special efforts are being made to locally promote the documentary, animation and short films.


Special consideration is being given to films featuring human stories, which are believed to be more appealing. “The viewing and selection committee was set up last December, and we’ve received over 2,000 submissions so far; they will still be coming until 25 February. The quality of the film is the first, second and third consideration, but the committee also takes into account the target of this round especially when it comes to public screenings,” Zakariya refers to screenings at cafes, libraries, sports and social clubs and cultural palaces, which the IIFFDS had regularly until 2011 and will be having again now. Indeed, as Zakariya explains, such screenings require their own system of classification.

“You cannot screen an experimental film at a cafe, so in addition to the age system we will have another type of classification relating to the venue. We will make sure both classifications are clear in the programme and, in future editions, I hope, in the festival catalogue. Taking the audience into account, we have to understand that one of the reasons they are reluctant to get involved is the content of some of the films. We will have a film list for the journalists and critics and another one for the public screenings, then the audience are free to choose their favourite list and take responsibility for it because everything is clear. We want the audience to get more familiar not only with the festival but with the type of films presented in the festival: documentary, animation and short features.”

Inviting young people from Ismailia to be part of the organising team of the festival is attempt to achieve integration. “We set up a fan group for the festival with the help of the Ismailia  Cultural Palace. It’s a group of young people who will not only take part in the organisational process but  also organise public film screenings in the city all year so the connection with the art of cinema becomes part of people’s everyday life and is no longer restricted to the short period of the festival. The ideal situation for a film festival in any governorate is to have all its administrative team from the governorate itself, but since we are living in a very centralised society where all decision-making happens in the capital, this is one way to involve the people of the governorate: make them part of the organisational team.” In addition, the local intellectual and artistic community will receive special invitations to various events: “We need the influential artistic figures to take part so that they’ll attract more people to the event. We’re also planning to invite celebrities who were born and brought up in Ismailia.”

Still, a strong programme remains the greatest challenge. “The random changes that have been taking place in the festival administration have made it difficult to maintain smooth, continual relations with filmmakers around the world or even in Egypt and the Arab countries, but we’re doing our best to overcome these obstacles. IIFFDS has its reputation and position on the world festival map. Some production and distribution companies, also filmmakers used to send their films to the festival every year. In the last round there were only a few Egyptian and even fewer Arab films. We needed to do something about that,” and Zakariya has drawn on his own network for the purpose. “Some films I read good reviews of or I find out they got prestigious prizes, so then we approach the filmmakers or the companies and invite them to submit the films. Approaching filmmakers is a tradition in the most prestigious film festivals in the world.  We cannot take the filmmakers or the audience for granted if we want to have a successful film festival.”


The efforts of Zakariya and his team resulted in raising the number of the films received from the Arab countries and Egypt, though decisions are still being made. So far the greatest concentrations of films are from Iran and Europe, but Mexico provides numerous contributions too. “I think Mexican filmmakers are more interested because a number of them were invited to the 2016 round and they’ve spread the word. The festival should have many representatives abroad. The foreign guests are the best equipped to do this when they go back to their countries.” There are four main competitions as usual:  documentary, short documentary, animation and short feature. Regardless of which one they are part of, this year all participating filmmakers will be invited to attend the festival; and the jury will include Egyptian, Arab and foreign figures.

The IIFFDS also includes a panorama, special screenings, a seminar on docudrama (in collaboration with AUC) and workshops on animation and live feature filmmaking for local young people and children. Zakariya says the workshops will this year start much earlier than the festival – at the beginning of March – and last for five weeks so that they can make a difference. Likewise the advertising campaign: it will give people plenty of time to find out about the festival.

One major challenge has been the budget, with the Ministry of Culture providing only LE1.2 million. Private-sector sponsorship is essential, Zakariya says: “Businessmen should realise that supporting culture is part of their social responsibility.” And the state’s cultural entities should facilitate such transactions in a flexible and transparent way. “In return they should show some appreciation in terms of announcing those contributors publicly in festival publications and in opening and closing ceremonies. Hiding their identity helps no one.” Negotiations and agreements between the IIFFDS and the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Ismailia Governorateare are underway, for now, while discussions with private-sector representatives are ongoing. “With all the financial challenges, the limited resources of the festival should push us to be creative and open up channels of cooperation with potential sponsors. Approaching your target groups – audience, filmmakers and the sponsors – is the key to a successful cultural event.”

AL-Ismailia Film Festival

For Essam Zakariya part of what success means is that the 19th round of the festival should be well organised and able to reach the audience in Ismailia, but he is also hoping that the IIFFDS will enhance the production of documentary, animation and short films in Egypt and the Arab world. “We are not in a good place regarding the production of these types of films in Egypt and the Arab world,” he says. For animation film production the private sector is not involved and what few initiatives to produce animation films exist in some academic institutions have not provided enough resources to develop the industry.

On the other hand, the production of documentaries and short films still faces the challenge of lack of distribution and screening avenues. The few TV channels that started some initiative to produce documentaries or screen short feature films are no longer interested, whether for political or economic reasons. “The only space we have right now to promote these films is the Ismailia Film Festival, not only for the audience but also for the filmmakers. The IIFFDS is one of the most important cinematic initiatives in Egypt and the Arab world, which introduced many of the best international films. For many years it was the space where independent filmmakers screened their films, and that’s very important in itself. This festival has been the most important factor for the independent film scene in Egypt and the Arab world, and it should continue playing that role.”

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