CAIRO: My first memories of the Cairo International Film Festival date six years back. I had been following the festival religiously every year on TV but I never got the chance to watch the films or attend any of the festival s activities. In 2000, a friend of mine gave me an invitation to attend the opening ceremony of the 24th round of the festival.
The guest of honor that year was Sophia Loren. Sitting in the front row with the photographers and other press members, I found myself inches away from one of cinema s immortal icons. The incident was definitely too overwhelming for my young brain to comprehend at the time.
After the ceremony ended, 70 percent of the attendees left the grand hall of the Cairo Opera House to mingle in the star-studded arena. After seeing Loren, it felt a bit repulsive to go out and stare at Nadia El-Guindy and belly dancer Fifi Abdo. I wisely chose to attend the opening film Dancer in the Dark instead. The film was hot off its Golden Palm win at Cannes and every single film enthusiast was talking about nothing but Lars Von Trier s masterpiece that year.
Dancer in the Dark was heart damaging, frighteningly cathartic and moving beyond words. It was an experience close to epiphany that I shared with other film lovers who were gasping for breath while failing to hold back their uncontainable tears. I left the theater with feelings I ve rarely felt before and just like the majority of those who watched the film with me, I came to the conclusion that Dancer was one of the best films I d ever seen. This was no ordinary experience; it was an experience that could only come about at the Cairo International Film Festival.
The idea of the festival was born in 1975 when film critic Kamal El-Malakh and a group of his colleagues learned that Israel was planning to establish an international film festival.
Back then, the anti Israeli sentiment was enormously intense and the idea of a festival held by a country that doesn t possess a genuine cinematic heritage propelled El-Malakh and his peers to establish an Egyptian film festival to showcase numerous films from various countries representing different cinematic movements.
The first Cairo International Film Festival was launched in 1976 without any financial backing from the Ministry of Culture who declined to provide it with any assistance and regarded it as nothing more than a sumptuous fantasy of a bunch of unrealistic dreamers.
Claudia Cardinale and Indian star Rajendra Kumar were the very first guests of honor and Martin Scorsese’s classic “Taxi Driver, shown for the first time in Egypt, headed the diverse selection of films.
The festival was an instant success despite all the overpowering setbacks members of the festival s committee had to confront.
The festival grew better and bigger with every successive year and major celebrities such as Elia Kazan, Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich, Peter O Toole, Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve, Oliver Stone, Ursula Andress, Carlos Saura and many others flocked to the festival. By the mid 90s, the festival was widely regarded as one of the most important film festivals in the world.
The festival never followed a rosy path though and many controversies shook its basic foundation several times.
The censors decision to edit some of the films participating in the festival forced multiple countries, such as France, Switzerland and Yugoslavia, to withdraw their films from the competition during the fourth round and it took the festival a great deal of effort to recover from the barbaric behavior of the censors.
The presence of some stars and their films always caused a stir in the conservative capital. Elizabeth Taylor s visit in 1979 was met with an infuriating reception from some intellectuals who were outraged by Taylor s earlier visit to Israel and the donations she made to the state, Oliver Stone s Natural Born Killers saw audiences collapsing and vomiting during the film s premiere while the committee s decision to decline Bosnia s demand to ban Emir Kusturica s Underground from screening, caused minor diplomatic tension between the two countries in 1995.
The controversies never stopped and criticism will continue as long as the festival persists. The challenges the festival is facing are growing harsher with every passing year, and with the rise of other richer Arab film festivals and constantly declining audiences, the question about the actual role and importance of the Cairo festival is raised more often than ever before. For film fans though, the answer has always been clear: It s all about the movies.
The backbone of critics assessment of the festival is based on how it represents Egypt every year in terms of grandness and organization. For film fans, it was honestly never about the country.
The festival always symbolized a haven for all art lovers who wait every year to get lost in the kaleidoscopic realms of true cinema. It s a haven for true film fans that grow weary of the American film occupation and the unfortunate state of a faltering local cinema. For the 10 days when the festival is held, escapism takes an alternative meaning and life becomes for this short period more meaningful, exciting and worthy, and for that reason alone, the festival certainly still matters.