After months of speculations, countless rumors and reports pledging better organization, top-notch films and bigger stars, the Cairo International Film Festival kicked off Tuesday night with fireworks, celebrities and a shiny new red carpet.
The capital’s largest, most prominent annual cultural event is back with a set of new promises and the challenge of redeeming itself after the travesty that was last year’s edition.
Frankly speaking, the 32nd round didn’t get off to a good start. The official press conference announcing details of the 2008 edition was held last Monday, one day before the opening ceremony, driving several reporters to scramble for the accuracy of published data.
However, no serious journalist cared to turn up for the press conference which essentially turned into a whining session as reporters complained about the lack of invitations to the opening ceremony. In fact, not a single question concerning the movies, activities or even the stars was asked during the entire conference.
Unlike major festivals, like in Berlin, for example, where the name of the head of the jury was announced four months in advance, the name of the CIFF’s International Competition jury president, Spanish filmmaker Imanol Uribe, was declared about 10 days ago. Schedules, symposium dates and screening outlets were made available less than a week ago.
Glitches aside, here’s what’s at stake this year: The good people of the festival have somehow managed to attract a swarm of major Hollywood stars that have exceeded previous years by a wide margin.
Oscar winner Charlize Theron and her British actor/director beau Stuart Townsend (“Queen of the Damned , “About Adam ), Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, Golden Globe nominee Kurt Russell and his Oscar winning partner Goldie Hawn, Oscar winner Mira Sorvino and British film star Julia Ormond are among the A-list celebrities being honored this year.
Other guests include “Clueless star Alicia Silverstone, “Dallas star and Elvis Presley’s ex-wife Priscilla Presley, award wining Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and frequent collaborator Lola Dueñas as well as Songül Öden and Kivanç Tatlitug, stars of the Turkish soap hit Gümüs (a.k.a Nour).
About 150 films from 59 countries are participating in the various sections of the festival. Spain is this year’s guest of honor, presenting 22 films, the oldest of which is Almodóvar’s Oscar nominated “Volver (2006) starring Penélope Cruz and Carmen Maura.
The highlight of the Spanish selection is Juan Antonio Bayona’s smash hit “The Orphanage, a chilling horror tale about a mother who moves with her family to a haunted orphanage before her son disappears a few days later. Another highlight of the retrospective is Jaime Rosales’ award-winning “La Soledad, the first major Spanish film to tackle the aftermath of 2004 Madrid bombings.
Eighteen films from 16 countries are competing for the International Feature Films Competition’s Golden Pyramid prize. Fourteen films are competing in the International Competition for Digital Feature Films and another 14 are vying for the Arab Film Competition’s top prize.
Egypt’s sole entry in the International Competition is Ismail Murad’s “The Day We Met starring Mahmoud Hemeida, Lebleba and Ola Ghanem. The film centers on two old lovers reuniting several years after they separated.
In the Arab competition, the hosting nation has three films. The most anticipated of which is Magdi Ahmed Ali’s “Fawzeya’s Secret Recipe starring Elham Shahine (recent winner of Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s Best Actress Award). The film’s titular character is a middle-aged woman with an unusual outlook on life that aids her in surviving poverty and dogmatic traditions.
Meanwhile, director Ali Ragab teams up with scriptwriter Belal Fadl and actress Abla Kamel for “Swimming Bolteya, a drama about a single mother battling a ruthless businessman attempting to take control of the district she inhabits. The last entry is Ahmed Rachwan’s independent film debut “Basra about an Egyptian photographer facing the existential questions of life following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Egyptian films face serious competition from two Palestinian films that have been making waves in festival circuits around the world. The first is Rashid Masharawi’s “Laila’s Birthday about a judge-turned-taxi-driver trying to make it on time for his daughter’s birthday.
The second is Annemarie Jacir’s “Salt of the Sea. The film depicts the obstacles facing an American immigrant returning to Palestine at Israeli checkpoints and the rigid Palestinian bureaucracy she encounters as she attempts to recover a sum of money left in a bank account by her grandparents.
In the official selection section, Matteo Garrone’s intensely hyped “Gomorra is the definitive must-see film of the festival. Based on Roberto Saviano’s non-fiction bestseller, the film is a multi-character drama set in the Mafia’s crime center in Naples.
Another anticipated picture is Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Three Monkeys, winner of this year’s Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival. The film revolves around a wealthy parliament candidate who convinces his driver to take the fall for a hit-and-run.
Other highlights of the out of competition selection include Sean Penn’s critically acclaimed fourth directorial effort “Into the Wild, Ken Loach’s social drama “It’s A Free World and Emir Kusturica’s romantic comedy “Promise Me This.
Beside the usual sections, three new ones have been added. The most notable of the bunch is the African film section, which features five recent films that should make for a fitting introduction to a cinema that has been conspicuously unrepresented in the festival.
The two other new sections are human rights films and Islam in international cinema. The latter section attempts to showcase foreign productions with an honest portrait of Islam and Muslims.
A number of symposiums discussing a variety of topics are scheduled to roll from tomorrow. The first, entitled “African Cinemas .Goodbye Isolation, will tackle the distribution obstacles facing African cinema. A second conference will discuss the role of cinema as a platform for human rights while a third will host a group of filmmakers from Southern Spain to talk about their indigenous cinema.
This year’s round is dedicated to legendary filmmaker Youssef Chahine who passed away last July. The festival will screen three of his films: “Destiny, “The Immigrant and “Chaos.
So, fasten your seatbelts and get ready for all the joys and frustrations of the festival. Disregard American films, clear up your calendar for our recommendations and try your luck with all those obscure European films.
All films will be screened in the following theaters: Good News Cinema, Cairo Opera House’s Artistic Creativity Center, Cairo Opera House’s Small Theater, Cosmos 1 and 2, Nile City 1 and 2, Stars Cinema and Metro. For full schedules, please check www.cairofilmfest.com