Earlier this year, while flipping through the February edition of Sight & Sound, one of the most prestigious film publications in the world, I came across an article entitled “Sitting here in limbo by prominent columnist Nick Roddick.
One particular paragraph caught my attention. Roddick – former editor of Screen International and Moving Pictures and contributing writer at The Guardian UK – had a mouthful to say about his experience with the Cairo International Film Festival.
Nick Roddick speaks out
“And then there was Cairo [International Film Festival], a shambling fiasco that has no trouble coming up with a fleet of Mercedes to ferry guests through the city’s traffic but can’t seem to get the right film on screen at the right time. Cairo’s ‘A’ status is the scandal of the festival circuit – and one that everyone seems too scared to address.
Thanks to the assistance of the Sight & Sound team, I managed to contact Roddick a few days before the kick-off of the last CIFF’s edition. Here’s what he had to say about the festival:
“The biggest surprise for me is that there was absolutely no reaction to my describing the festival as a fiasco in a respected journal like Sight & Sound. If I had done that about any other festival in the world, there would have been, at least, letters to the editor.
“And to clear up one detail: I wasn’t invited by the festival but by the British Council, for whom I organized a set of panels as part of the ‘Special Guest’ status of the UK at the CIFF in 2007.
“I should also explain that I go to a lot of festivals, and have been doing so since the mid-1980s, initially as editor of Screen International, subsequently as a journalist and consultant. I have also been working closely with a couple of festivals – the Berlinale since 1993 and Edinburgh for the past three years – so I probably know as much about how a festival runs (or ought to run) as anyone not directly employed by one.
“In Cairo last year, the British Council panels were my primary concern, but I naturally assumed that I would go to some screenings and generally soak up the festival. This I never managed to do: simply finding out what was screening when and where was, by the standards of even a festival as complicated as, say Moscow, unnecessarily difficult.
“I did meet a member of the programming committee whose knowledge of world cinema seemed shaky.
“But the real reason that Cairo fails to live up to its potential is that it has absolutely no international profile. To say it competes only with Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Marrakech would be true if it put up any kind of fight. But each of those three festivals regularly sends me (and, I assume, other international film journalists) information about their programs, their events, their prizes . I’ve never received any communication from Cairo.
“It is a mystery to me and to everyone else I know how the CIFF justifies its ‘A’ festival status, since it appears to have no coherent policy of revealing new African and Middle Eastern cinema to the world, or of showing the best of world cinema to Egyptian audiences. Every film festival has to strike a balance between cultural innovation, crowd-pleasing and satisfying its sponsors, whether financial or political. Since the only real evidence of a festival I could see in Cairo was the fleet of black Mercedes, I am bound to assume that the third objective outweighed the other two.
“The sad thing is that there is a tremendous opportunity for Cairo on the festival circuit. Marrakech is French-dominated, Ouagadougou hampered by the fact that it is held in one of the world’s poorest countries, Abu Dhabi and Dubai so awash with money that it is hard to take them seriously. They are, however, trying to provide opportunities for young filmmakers from the Arab world, and both make a real effort to program Middle Eastern films.
I honestly wasn’t shocked by Roddick’s comments. Publishing his responses prior to the festival though might have created a premature backlash and hence, I decided to give the festival the benefit of the doubt and wait until the end of this year’s edition, hoping that last year’s grave defects wouldn’t be replicated.
How misguided and naïve I was to believe so. Now, and after surviving two weeks of incompetence and celebrity pampering, I can fully attest that Roddick’s comments were spot-on, because this year’s edition has been nothing short of a disgrace.
The unprecedented line-up of Hollywood stars the festival hosted this year initially gave the impression that the festival might be getting its act together and fulfilling its potential.
Astonishingly, the stars functioned as a kind of decoy to distract from organizational scandals, lack of great pictures and absence of scope, vision or ambition from the festival’s committee.
A backstage view
The backstage drama of the opening ceremony was nowhere as flattering as what appeared on stage. Susan Sarandon was left scrambling for the stage entrance before she finally arrived a few moments late. Later on, not being able to tolerate standing up for an entire hour on stage, she kept searching for an empty spot on stage to rest. As for the honorees’ film footage that was scheduled to be broadcast on the ostentatiously gigantic screen, the festival president Ezzat Abou Ouf explained that the computer responsible for the operation simply “froze!
Nothing was as outrageous as the treatment of the Spanish stars who were introduced on stage after nearly all attendees had left. What’s even more shameful is that not a single one of the festival personnel apologized for what had happened.
Their ordeal didn’t stop at this point. Spanish actress Marian Álvarez, for example, told me she had to plead for almost an hour and a half for someone to drive her to the screening of her film “Best of Me.
The struggle of Annemarie Jacir
“Salt of this Sea Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir encountered a different type of bureaucracy.
“Saleh Bakri, Riyad Ideis and Ossama Bawardi (the Palestinian producer) were invited by the festival, she told me. “We received an email from the festival afterwards that their visas would be arranged and available at Cairo airport for them when they landed. So Ossama Bawardi had a flight ticket from Athens to Cairo [he was coming to Cairo from another film festival – the team was there together].
“Then they ‘suddenly’ couldn’t help us and told us three days before flying that there would be no visas for them at the airport nor would they help get them one. The festival wouldn’t even help us change the flight or give any solutions so I ended up having to buy a ticket for him somewhere else.
According to Jacir, the reason why the festival refused to allow visas for her cast and crew was because they hold Israeli passports (Bakri, Ideis and Bawardi are Arab/Israelis). Apparently, the festival committee didn’t acknowledge the fact that they’re Palestinians.
“Our Palestinian team wanted to be in Cairo for the festival more than anything and it’s hard to understand why they were suddenly ignored and when asked for help, were not even graced with a response.
“For Dubai (Film Festival), they are all invited and will be there. Tickets, visas, hotels – everything has been set.
Inconsequential seminars, average films and organizational muddle
The less that is said about the haphazardly put, insignificant seminars the better. One of the foreign panel members of the African Cinema seminar and the head of an international film festival, who refused to be named, was asked to participate in the discussion the same day it was held. Sohier Abdel Kader, vice president of CIFF, oblivious to who he is, asked him to write down his credentials on a piece of paper to introduce him.
The biggest victims of the festival though were the average moviegoers. A large number of screenings were rescheduled without any advance notifications. The festival’s website was a joke. None of the dates and data, uploaded less than a week prior to the start of the festival, was updated once the festival kicked
Gilles Jacob, president of the Cannes Film Festival, said a few months back that the “The main criterion for the festival is its selection of films. If that’s indeed the case, then CIFF is a colossal failure.
Although the main international competition contained some exceptional films – “Dancers and “Séraphine are two that spring to mind – there was nothing revelatory in there, not a single film reflecting new cinematic trends.
The out of the competition sections contained an alarming number of old films – “Into the Wild, “Margot at the Wedding, “Promise Me This, and “It’s a Free World… among others. Apart from “Gomorra and “Three Monkeys, the world film retrospective was anemic on high profile arthouse films.
There are at least 40 stunning films from around the globe that caused wave in festival circuits this year. Apart from the aforementioned two, none of them were screened in Cairo.
The festival committee has constantly blamed the Middle-Eastern distributors for being resilient in allowing them to screen the high-profile European or American arthouse hits, a claim Roddick rebuffs.
“The distributors won’t give them the films because the Festival has such a bad reputation: it’s a vicious circle, Roddick said. “Like any Festival, Cairo needs to work on building relationships with distributors, both in the Middle East and internationally.
Indeed, a top Arab filmmaker, who refused to be named, told me that the French producer of his film was reluctant to bring his film to the festival “because he had previous bad experiences with it. The festival is known to mess up with the film prints.
The Arab competition, I have to admit, was unexpectedly stellar this year, thanks to the participation of acclaimed films such as the aforementioned “Salt of this Sea and “Laila’s Birthday. Although, it must be noted, that these films have garnered their reputation from the awards they received in previous festivals.
All film retrospectives held this year lacked focus and imagination. I’m not quite sure why the festival committee insisted that the Spanish retrospective contain only recent productions that constitute a tiny part of Spanish cinema’s long history. Similarly, the African film selection doesn’t remotely represent modern African cinema.
The audience turnout was robust in a number of screenings and could have at least tripled had the festival took it upon itself to publicly announce its selection sometime beforehand.
“Honestly speaking, how can you expect the viewers to show up for the films where there’s absolutely no publicity for the films? Marianne Khoury, head of Misr El Arabeya production company and co-owner of City Stars and Galaxy cinema, told me.
The final word
The fact of the matter is CIFF has reached a standstill. CIFF is no different than Dubai and Marrakech; all glitz and no substance. High profile critics are increasingly deserting the festival, while the occasional foreign journalists are only interested in the dichotomy between the festival as a cultural/political event and the modern conservative society.
By the end of the festival, I was enraged by the obstacles and debacles which filmmakers, the unsung heroes of the festival, had to face while the committee was cuddling the stars who weren’t even here for the movies or for the festival proceedings, but for the sightseeing and the lavish lunches.
The CIFF must have the courage to confess that the festival is not ‘A’ category material. The FIAPF, that has erroneously categorized the festival, is “a big scam according to a prominent American film festival executive.
“Cairo is one of the world’s great cities, with a fantastic cultural history and was, until recently, home to the region’s most successful film industry. The festival owes it to the city, the country and to Africa and the Middle East in general to take advantage of its status and history and somehow reinvigorate and reinvent itself as the place to see North African and Middle Eastern films, Roddick said. “We are living in an age when the balance of economic and cultural power is beginning to shift: there is the appetite and need for a great film festival in Egypt, but Cairo is a very long way from being that festival.
I believe the festival’s critics and the readers at least deserve a response to what happened this year. Your call now, CIFF.
The three most memorable moments of CIFF press conferences 2008
3) Hollywood actress Mira Sorvino attacked for US foreign policy before one Egyptian actress asked the baffled Sorvino if she’s ever been “haunted by a character.
2) German filmmaker Tamara Staudt, director of international competition entry “Where the Grass is Greener accused of slandering Islam for depicting a Muslim immigrant as a opportunist seeking to marry the free-spirited German protagonist, and requiring their future daughter to wear the veil despite the fact that he has no qualms about drinking wine and bathing with her. When one Egyptian audience member defended Staudt by saying “Arabs and Muslims do indeed attempt through various means to get the European citizenship and behave as Westerners, all hell broke loose.
1) Actor Mohammed Karim (“El Torbini, “Hena Maysara ) was the undeniable star of the festival. In the “Battle of Seattle press conference, he stood up, addressing dumbfounded Irish actor/director Stuart Townsend, and said; “Hey Stuart, hey man, great film man. A second later, he diverted his attention to Charlize Theron; “And Charlize, you look too cute tonight.
But don’t get me wrong Stuart, I don’t mean anything. Karim then proceeded to ask the pair the same question he asked in every press conference he attended: “Why do American movies stereotype Arabs?