A New Start, An Uncertain Future

in 37th Cairo International Film Festival

by Beat Glur

The Cairo International Film Festival is the oldest festival in both the African continent and the Arab world, and it is the only FIAPF Festival in the region. It was founded in 1976 by a group of local film critics and soon became an important showcase for Arab cinema. Stars and directors such as Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Alain Delon, Elia Kazan, Michelangelo Antonioni and Oliver Stone helped to build fame and recognition. The festival became an important meeting point, not only for filmmakers, but for writers, intellectuals, and other artists.

By the 21st century, during the long and autocratic reign of Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011), the festival had lost much of its importance. Star guests from Europe and the US turned down invitations, while the local public stayed away. Then, due to the revolution and ongoing political instability, CIFF was cancelled in 2011 and in 2013.

Therefore, this year’s 36th edition was a decisive one for the future of the festival. The Minister of Culture appointed the renowned Egyptian film critic, 71-year-old Samir Farid, as president and artistic director of CIFF. “I only had one condition when I was asked”, says Farid. “No censorship! And they accepted.”

Farid put together an International Competition with 14 films from 13 countries, mostly screened at previous festivals. In other sections, he added titles including the world premiere of Mohamed Rady’s Wall of Heroism (Ha’et Al-Botoulat), a film about the Arab-Israeli October War of 1973, which was shot in 1998 but banned by the Egyptian military. Two notable films, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars and Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage), both featured explicit nudity. The Naguib Mahfouz Lifetime Achievement Award was given to director Volker Schlöndorff (Diplomacy). With the cancellation at short notice of actress Geraldine Chaplin, Schlöndorff was the only international star guest to attend the festival.

Although widely acclaimed in Egyptian cinema circles, Samir Farid faced harsh reactions from strong Islamic movements in the country, as well as from the “old guard” who ran the festival in previous years. He was heavily criticized for featuring Fatih Akin’s The Cut as the opening film (Turkey is an official “enemy” of Egypt) and for inviting and honoring former French Minister of Culture Jack Lang (Lang was subject to slurs and slander from the Egyptian press, who labeled him a “pedophile homosexual Jew”).

There were complaints about the screening of Palestinian director Najwa Najjar’s life-under-occupation drama Eyes of a Thief, featuring Egyptian actor Khaled Abol-Naga in the lead; Abol-Naga openly criticized Egypt’s Head of State Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of violating human rights, and was subsequently also accused by the press of being homosexual. But at the closing ceremony, Abol-Naga walked away with the Best Actor Award from the International Jury, in the presence of Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour!

What does CIFF’s future look like? Farid’s contract ended on the last day of the festival. “We only get contracts for one year – all of the new collaborators I engaged, and myself,” says Farid. “I might do it again if they ask me, but I will have a few more conditions.” As it turns out, Farid’s biggest problem is not money or censorship. “We suffer from bureaucracy! For every chair that I need, I have to fill in a dozen forms.  And the chair may only arrive a year later, if ever.”

Many local critics and cinema professionals want Farid to renew his contract for several years. But this is a state-run event, and the decision lies with the Minister of Culture. The decision might come before the end of the year, or later: no one knows. Although Farid was happy with the organization and outcomes of this year’s event – particularly the return of young audiences to the festival – he is not optimistic about the future. “We still don’t have democracy. We are, on the contrary, at war, at war against terrorism. There is still a very long way to go.”

Edited by Lesley Chow