When Ezzat Abou Ouf took over as president of the Cairo International Film Festival last year, he caused quite a stir by announcing that he would resign from the post if he failed to accomplish a specific set of goals. The 30th edition of the festival succeeded in restoring the glamour and significance of the major cultural event, which had been waning due to the rise of similar festivals in the Arab world.
As the Abu Dhabi film festival enters the already crammed competition this year, the Cairo Film Festival faces more obstacles in sustaining its relevance. In support, swaying film fans are returning to the festival’s screens in small droves.
At a press conference on Monday, where the names of international guests attending the festival were announced, Abou Ouf was bombarded with questions and accusations by the media regarding the films that will be screened this year.
He sat down for an interview with Daily News Egypt to discuss the 31st edition of the film festival and the challenges that lie ahead. While he was reluctant to react to critics’ remarks, he did admit some of the board’s miscalculations and shortcomings.
Daily News Egypt: Did you expect this hostile reaction from the media?
Ezzat Abou Ouf: Yes, but I wish someone would explain to me the reason for their riling stance towards the festival. I just want to know why it seems like they’re always prepared for a boxing match. Is it because of us? Is it them? Is it because of the past mistakes of the festival?
Is it our innate nature as Egyptians to criticize everything?
This is not criticism.
Is it antagonism?
It is antagonism. I wish someone would be brave and objective enough to explain the reason behind it.
What did the festival achieve last year?
Last year, our primary goal was to get the festival out of the intensive care unit. It is now in a regular room and we’re trying to revitalize and fortify it with the needed vitamins.
I don’t mind the new [Abu Dhabi] competition. On the contrary, I’m glad. I believe that without competition, you can never improve and you’ll end up being redundant. The competition has to be clean and honest, and I of course I don’t like it when it turns nasty.
Does it bother you that other Arab festivals are attracting more attention because of the popular stars that attend them?
No, it doesn’t bother me. Look, stars are synonymous with hefty amounts of cash that we honestly can’t afford. Also, I can’t ask for more money to get this caliber of stars. It would be inconsiderate of me to do that amid the harsh economical conditions we live under.
Besides, stars don’t make an actual festival. They can make a party, but not a film festival. To organize a real festival you must first have an established cinematic history. I’m content with the competition and acknowledge the challenges they represent. However, we cannot underestimate the Cairo Film Festival and say that there are better festivals in the regions because, according to facts and history, there simply isn’t.
Many criticize the festival’s inability to present high-profile films.
The problem is that we have not yet established a link with foreign producers. Are we to blame? Are they to blame? I’m not sure. The festival committee has to work on establishing this connection regardless of whether I’ll be here next year or not.
This can be a mutually beneficial relationship. Producers can enjoy free publicity for their films before they’re released in theaters and at the same time, these major pictures would boost our film selection.
Is it true that the 10-day festival sells an average of 6,000 to 10,000 tickets?
That’s true. It’s almost nothing.
When do you think the festival will start yielding some profit from film screenings?
That will require a lot of work. Look, the reason the festival used to make a considerable profit is – you know .
Yes. Let’s be honest, our audience abandoned the festival when it moved away from sex. The films demand a degree of cinematic intellectualism rarely found in the audiences of multiplex cinemas. This leaves us with intellectuals, art professionals, students from the American University in Cairo and expatriates – a limited audience. It’s difficult to adopt an effective marketing strategy that would reach a wider audience base.
Maybe you’re not concentrating enough on your existing audiences.
Maybe, and maybe it’s because audiences are not interested in these kinds of films. Whether it’s true or not, the entire festival board is always looking for ways to solve this issue. One of the suggestions I came up with is to offer free tickets to members of sports clubs or embassy workers, who in turn would spread the word about the festival. All I can tell you is that it will take time before we’re able to come up with effective remedies.
Last year, the main sponsor Mobinil claimed that the opening ceremony was broadcast to 250 million households around the world.
Well, we’re still not certain. We’ve asked them to provide us with reports showing how many people watched the ceremony, but we haven’t received anything so far.
How will the 31st edition be different from last year’s?
This year, I’ve tried to get our own stars to participate in the festival. You simply can’t throw a great celebration when the residents of your own house aren’t attending. Egyptian media, stars and audience turnout at film screenings, discussions and press conferences should increase. Also, organization will improve and, of course, criticism and insults will increase.