The biggest annual cultural event in Egypt kicked off Tuesday. The 31st Cairo International Film Festival opened with a brand new set of promises, strong international competitions and films from a variety of genres and numerous countries.
But the number of high-profile movies continues to decline. Major pictures such as “Persepolis, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, “Edge of Heaven, or “Into the Wild are a no show this year.
Even the British selection, immaculate as it is, sorely misses the inclusion of the most talked about English films of the year: Joe Wright’s “Atonement, Kenneth Branagh remake of “Sleuth, the indie smash “Red Road and Ken Loach’s latest bravado “It’s a Free World…
Still, the absence of these highly-anticipated pictures should not detract from the superb film selection set to be screened over the next 10 days.
Cristian Mungiu’s Palm d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the most awaited film of the festival. Since its win last May in Cannes, the Romanian production has been making waves in festival circuits, cumulating with a nomination for best European film of the year. It tells the story of a woman helping her friend have an illegal abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania in the mid-80s.
“4 Months will head the Romanian film sidebar along with the late Cristian Nemescu’s “California Dreamin’, winner of the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes 2007. A black comedy, the film revolves around an American troop forced to stop on their way to deliver military equipments to Kosovo in a small Romanian village during the Balkan war.
Yousef Sherif Rizkalla, artistic director of the festival, explained that terrorism and the aftermath of 9/11 on Arabs are two of the main themes in numerous pictures this year.
Gavin Hood’s “Rendition, a political thriller about America’s outsourcing of its torture hubs to Africa and the Middle East, is the most high-profile American film of the festival. Early controversial reports that the film’s torture scenes are set in Egypt were denied by Rizkalla. Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhaal star alongside half-Egyptian actor Omar Metwally.
Another major American production concerned with terrorism is British director Michael Winterbottom’s “A Mighty Heart. The film – starring Angelina Jolie – is based on the true story of humanitarian and political activist Marianne Pearl, the wife of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl, who was murdered in Pakistan by extremists in 2002.
Controversial documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield (“Biggie and Tupac, “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer ) changed course with his latest effort in feature narration with “Battle for Haditha. The film examines the massacre of 24 Iraqis in Haditha, who were murdered by four American marines as an act of retaliation following the death of their compatriots in a roadside bombing.
The main International competition is packed with similar themes. Pakistan’s “In the Name of the Father – an early critics’ favorite for the Golden Pyramid Award – is a sprawling picture about the clash between fundamental and liberal Islam explored through the story of a modern-day Pakistani family.
Italy’s “Me the Other is arriving with pre-awards buzz. Bearing a slight resemblance to last year’s Canadian thriller “Civic Duty, the film follows two friends – an Italian and a Tunisian – as the former suspects his friend and business partner is a terrorist.
With two films inside the main international competition and another two in the Arab one, Egypt’s offering looks unusually strong and promising this year.
Saad Hindawy follows first feature “Halet Hob (A Love State) with “Alwan El Sama El Saba’ (The Seventh Heaven). Unlike his jumbled debut, Hindawy’s new film was well received by critics during the private screenings. “Heaven centers on a romance between a middle-aged couple with a hidden, tormenting past.
Ihab Lamey’s “On Air appears to be the most original offering of the bunch. A fictional TV station chooses four contestants for its latest reality show. In order to win, players must remain silent for an entire month. Touching upon the crafty methods used by authorities to control its citizens, “On Air could turn out to be this year’s surprise.
Ahmed Atef presents his third film “The Demons of Cairo, which offers a gritty look at street children and the unforgiving world they inhabit. Atef’s track record hasn’t been impressive, but the subject matter of the film and the footage unveiled so far renders it a must-see.
On a different note, France provides festival goers with a dose of first-class entertainment. Topping the bill is Laurent Tirard’s summer smash “Molière. The romantic comedy, described by critics as the French “Shakespeare in Love, imagines a fictional love story between the literary giant and an older woman in circumstances that would inspire some of his most famous plays.
Unfortunately, Edith Piaf’s blockbuster biopic “La Vie en Rose was scrapped from this year’s selection.
As for the British films, Sean Meadows’ harrowing “This is England is bound to surprise Egyptian moviegoers with its unflinching look at hooliganism, violence and xenophobia in Thatcher-era England.
“Trainspotting director Danny Boyle returns with the sci-fi thriller “Sunshine. Boyle’s polarizing visual feast is set 50 years into the future and chronicles a mission-gone wrong involving a team of astronauts sent to reignite the dying sun.
The comedic genius of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (“Spaced’) follow their massive hit “Shaun of the Dead with the equally zany “Hot Fuzz. A spoof of cop movies, the film revolves around a London cop so skilled at his job that his other colleagues conspire against him and succeed in transferring him to a small unit in Stanford. There, he’s teamed with a dimwitted, naïve partner.
Rizkalla also recommended the many Moroccan films shown at the main International competition, the Arab competition and the Morocco film sidebar. Currently producing the most acclaimed films in the region, Moroccan films could break the spell of bad Arabic films featured in the festival over the past few years.
Besides the number of notable films set to be screened, the most exciting thing about the festival remains to be the sense of risk and surprise you get when entering a theater and watching a picture you know you might never see again.
For full schedule, please visit the festival’s website at www.cairofilmfest.com