Monday,25 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Monday,25 March, 2019
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

New tactics for old problems

The artistic director of the 39th Cairo International Film Festival tells Nahed Nasr about this year’s challenges and achievements


Mirroring difficult conditions in the Egyptian film industry, the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), the biggest national cinematic event and the pioneer international film festival in the region, is trying in its 39th edition to invent new tactics to tackle obstacles such as the limited budget, the drop in national film production and a reluctant audience, among many challenges.   

Youssef Cherif Rizkalla, the prominent film critic and media figure who had been artistic secretary since 1978 when he became artistic director last year, seems optimistic about the three-year partnership protocol signed with the DMC TV: for the first time in its history, CIFF has a television company in charge of its media campaign, opening and closing ceremonies and world film stars invitations. In return the channel is exclusively granted the coverage and live feed rights for the festival’s events. 

“Only state television will have the right to cover the event without the DMC logo,” explains Rizkalla. “In the last two rounds CBC TV had a kind of media sponsorship agreement that did not include financial support, and in previous rounds a few businessmen made contributions as well, including Naguib Sawiris. But this deal with DMC is different and I hope it will encourage other private sector and media entities to sponsor the festival.” 

The Mountain Between Us

Private sector sponsorship is increasingly essential, the only way to rescue the festival as government aid drops year by year. “This year the Ministry of Finance doubled the budget from LE six to 12 million, but a quarter of this amount was already gone on debts from the previous round, and the rest is hardly enough especially now the Egyptian pound has been floated, causing the prices of everything to rise. In other words, although the budget has doubled the value of the amount which was not enough is almost the same”. Even with the partnership, in fact, some elements have not been properly covered: the attendance of world celebrities for example.

“Celebrities are not only important for the audience but also for the prestige  of the festival and the reputation of the country as a tourist and cultural hub,” says Rizkalla. “Although DMC is now in charge of this element, the stars’ requirements are still not affordable. DMC has had long and difficult negotiations with many stars...”

Another challenge is the reluctance of the audience. Since 2011 screenings have taken place within the Cairo Opera House grounds in addition to the downtown Odeon Cinema, but not enough viewers were showing up. “In this round we decided to reach a wider audience in several parts of the city,” a move that brings about its own challenges, since few theatre owners are willing to risk screening non-commercial films for 10 days. 

“Our solution was to rent the film theatre for the duration of the festival so the festival audience can attend either using free student and journalist cards or for a LE30 ticket (that’s less than $2). We rented the Zamalek Cinema and one of the City Stars Mall theatres, in addition to the three Odeon theatre. Only one theatre, at the Mall of Arabia, will screen the festival films at normal prices. They rejected the renting deal because they already have more than 10  other theatres and they expect their audience to approach the festival films as any other film they screen there.”

Rizkalla feels the cost of renting film theatres is a long-term investment worth making in drawing the audience to festival films and encouraging theatre owners to screen them. Indeed this policy might even inspire distributors to vary their fare year round. “In many countries,” Rizkalla explains, “the state plays a role in film distribution by compensating distributors and theatres that screen films from different countries including art house films. France tops the list of such countries. Since we have no such system in Egypt, the festival – 175 films from 53 countries – is the industry’s way of making distributers more enthusiastic and more open to a wider market.”

The selection of Australia as the guest of honour, with a programme of 10 acclaimed films, is part of this strategy. “Although Australian cinema has a foothold across the world the Egyptian audience is not familiar with it. Every year we select a different country as our guest of honour to give the Egyptian audience an in-depth look at a different cinema. What is interesting about Australian cinema is that there are many Australian superstars who have  leading roles in the world cinema. We selected a variety of films that show not only the elements of the Australian cinema but also its influence on the world film scene.” 

Of the 175 films, however, there are no Egyptian full-length features. Only three short films in the Cinema of Tomorrow short film competition were selected. Directors and producers may be more eager than ever to submit their work to world festivals but this means they are less interested in CIFF than more lucrative film events; and production rates are lower than ever. 

“Egyptian films we wanted to have in this year’s round went to other festivals: Sheikh Jackson and Photocopy went to El Gouna Film Festival, the producer of Don’t Kiss Me withdrew the film to submit it to Dubai because he was not sure of the CIFF committee’s decision. I do not blame the directors and producers but if we had more productions we would not to be in such a situation now.” Even in the Dubai Film Festival, indeed, there are only three Egyptian films, and only one in the official competition. 

The state should help subsidise art house films at least, Rizkalla says. “Two years ago the state had an initiative represented by the Ministry of Culture to subsidies film production with LE two million. The initiative did not last, but very good films were made. We are in dire need of such initiatives.” It is no coincidence that the Egyptian Film Crisis is one of the main seminars of CIFF this year. Filmmakers, producers and other stakeholders will attempt to find lasting solutions to the problem.

In the meantime the Egyptian Panorama – a special programme established last year with the aim of allowing the foreign audience to keep up with Egyptian cinema – will be screening recent work. “Even when the films have not made it to any competition, it is the policy of CIFF to show its admiration and support for established and aspiring Egyptian filmmakers. This is our role.”  

And it is in this spirit that the festival is opening with the Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu Assad’s The Mountain Between Us, a 20th Century Fox production starring the Hollywood stars Idris Elba and Kate Winslet. “This film is the first Hollywood film to be directed by an Arab filmmaker, Rizkalla says, “so it is an honour to open the festival with it. The film was to be screened in Egypt last October at the time of its screening in the US but I negotiated with the distributor’s Cairo agent to delay the screening so that its Egyptian premier could be in CIFF; they welcomed the idea.”

Abu Assad, who has had two Academy Award nominations – for Paradise Now (2006) and Omar (2013) – as well as being asked to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2014, was also selected as member of the International Jury. Headed by veteran jean premier Hussein Fahmi, the jury also includes Egyptian filmmaker Khairy Beshara and Cairo-based Syrian actress Kinda Allouch. 

Film star Youssra is CIFF’s honorary president while the Faten Hamama Honorary Award will go to Egyptian comedy superstar Samir Ghanem. The Faten Hamama Excellence Award will go to both the Tunisian actress Hind Sabri and the Egyptian actor Maged Al-Kidwani. The festival is paying tribute to the late film critic Samir Farid with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award and an exhibition. It honours the late critics Ahmed Al-Hadari, Mustafa Darwish and Fawzi Suleiman, and commemorates the late Egyptian director Mohamed Kamel Al-Qalioubi, the late Lebanese director Jean Chamoun and the late French actress Jeanne Moreau.

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