CAIRO: On steady, bouncing Spanish flamenco beats, the 32nd Cairo International Film Festival kicked off Tuesday at the Cairo Opera House with a spirited star-studded opening ceremony abundant with glitches and suffering from disorganization that, nevertheless, managed to emerge as the most entertaining and most significant opening ceremony in years.
The opening ceremony commenced an hour late with a nimble flamenco dance number as a nod to Spain, this year’s guest of honor.
Legendary Egyptian star Omar Sharif entered the stage following the end of the performance to welcome the host of Hollywood stars attending the current round.
“I think that in the history of our festival, we’ve never had such a wonderful quality of actresses and actors and directors and film people, Sharif remarked.
The rest of his speech, alas, mimicked his last year’s nearly word by word, restating that “most Egyptian people are poor but they smile and how most of them “expect God to reward them someday and if not now, then in heaven afterwards.
Festival president Ezzat Abou Ouf was next, beginning his speech with few words about Spanish cinema. “All of us would like to welcome the beautiful Spain that we’re honored to have as our guest of honor in this year’s round for its beautiful aesthetics and the warmth of feelings it’s characterized by.
Seated in a flashy, odd-looking round revolving stage, members of the jury panels for the festival’s three competitions were introduced one by one, starting with the International Competition for Feature Digital Films, headed by Egyptian filmmaker Tarek Alarian, and followed by the Arab Feature Competition, headed by Lebanese director Jean Chamoun, and lastly the International Feature Films competition, headed by veteran Spanish director Imanol Uribe.
Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny ascended the stage then to inaugurate this year’s edition with a lengthy speech winking at the widespread optimism brought by the election of new US president-elect Barack Obama, one of the undisclosed stars of the night.
“New world political amendments are signifying changes and maturity of international minds, transcending the barrier of color and race, he commented.
Hosny concluded his speech by dedicating this year’s edition to the recently deceased legendary Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine before a short, well-made, moving montage of Chahine’s works was shown.
A number of Egyptian film stars were invited next to present the lifetime achievement awards for this round’s foreign honorees armed with badly written, embarrassingly cheesy material.
Egyptian heartthrob Khaled Abol Naga was first to present Oscar winning American actress Susan Sarandon, a task he described as “one of the highlights of my life.
The wave of applause welcoming Sarandon waned a bit when she took some time to show up, an anomaly repeated several times during the ceremony.
“Salamo Alaikom, she said. “It’s an honor this award, not just because of what represents as a personal achievement, but also the rich cultural legacy it embodies, and to receive it in Cairo, the Hollywood of the Middle East.
Sarandon – longtime democrat and a strident, outspoken critic of incumbent US president George W. Bush – candidly addressed her enthusiasm about America’s first African-American president.
“This a particularly wonderful time for me to be representing the US because we are experiencing a renewed sense of hope and possibility in the election of Barrack Hussein Obama, Sarandon said amid a roaring round of applause.
“With this mandate for change comes the opportunity to recognize not only our differences but the stories we have in common, she added. “I found the Pyramids very moving because they were built with a passion which united people towards a common goal. Imagination allows us to reach across our differences, to dream things as large as the Pyramids.
Sarandon finished off her stirring speech by dedicating her award to “to the simplicity and magnitude of a commitment to a world which will be free of violence for our children, a world committed to social justice and as enduring as the Pyramids.
Actress Youssra was next to present American action star Kurt Russell with his award.
“Goldie and I have only been here for four days but I can tell you, from the point of view of an actor, it’s the world of the senses for us, Russell said.
“When you go to the Pyramids and have the opportunity to explore all of what you have, the great and grand history of what you are, we realize of course where we all come from.
“And I would travel the world hundred times just to meet Mr Omar Sharif, he smiled.
Actor Mahmoud Kabil followed Russell to introduce British actress Julia Ormond whose acceptance speech was arguably the highlight of the evening.
“Please, please forgive me if this is not clear, Ormond said – to the surprise of the audience – before she went on to recite her entire blithe speech in Arabic.
“At the beginning of my career, I was awarded the most promising young actress award. And now, with this award, I feel that I haven’t achieved anything between both awards, Ormond said, driving the attendants into a whirl of laughter.
“You have a generous and warm people and I hope I can come back for a second time.
Actor Moustafa Fahmy next presented Goldie Hawn, the last of foreign honorees.
“Messa’ el fol, Hawn said. “I always wanted to come to Egypt and I realized that everything I dreamed about didn’t come as close to the people here. I really feel I’ve come to a place on the planet called home.
Sparkling Hawn ended her speech with a serious note concerning the responsibility of filmmakers and their duty to bridge the gap between cultures.
“We can make films that can bring us together, films that promote tolerance, love and respect, or we can create films that can sometimes divide us.
“We need to be present and aware as we’re making movies to be mindful of the beauty and importance of one word, one person, one universe.
Egyptian stars switched turns with their foreign counterparts to present the lifetime achievement awards for the Egyptian honorees.
“Clueless star Alicia Silverstone was first to present art director Nihad Bahgat. A short film of Bahgat’s works was set to be screened, but it never did, propelling Silverstone to improvise until the problem is fixed. “Egypt is fantastic; food is great, am I supposed to just keep on talking?
Sharif came to the rescue and saved the day with witty comments that succeeded in breaking the awkwardness of the situation.
“I was very worried tonight that people would think we’re like German people, very organized and all, Sharif joked. “We never know what’s going to happen the next minute. Don’t even think about it, everything’s improvised.
“Dallas star and Elvis Presley ex-wife Priscilla Presley presented director of photography Tarek El Telmisani with his award. Songül Öden and Kivanç Tatlitug, stars of the Turkish soap hit Gümüs (a.k.a Nour) were greeted with loud cheering as they presented veteran actors Poussy and Mahmoud Yassin with their awards.
Irish actor/director Stuart Townsend presented actress Samira Ahmed with the final award of the evening, who took such opportunity to endorse Hosny’s bid for UNESCO’s top post.
“I’m a bit sad that the minister might be leaving us soon, but I fully encourage him and we will all soon celebrate his new post at UNESCO.
As the audience started to leave, Hosny presented Spanish Minster of Culture Cesar Antonio Molina with an honorary award. By the time the Spanish stars were introduced on stage, half the attendants were already gone.
Sources told Daily News Egypt that several guests, including Ormond, Townsend and Egyptian star Safeya El Emery, were initially prevented from entering the ceremony hall following the start of the show.
“Return to Hansala, the opening ceremony film, was screened, as usual, in the almost empty Opera hall after the minister, Abou Ouf and most guests and journalists flocked to the after party. The film follows a Moroccan i
mmigrant in Spain who returns to her hometown with the corpse of her brother, killed in an illegal immigration attempt. The woman is accompanied by an undertaker whose business relies on taking back corpses of murdered illegal immigrants to their poor families.
As earnest the film is, it isn’t really an opening ceremony material. With its limited scope and lack of stars, the film might’ve been a fitting entry for a small independent film festival, not a major international one.