Halfway through last year’s installment of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), I had a conversation with a German reporter about the disastrous organization and the elitism that came to define the 32nd edition.
Despite everything though, I still had residues of faith left in the fest, sustained by a couple of quality films I saw in the first few days. I encouraged her to check the festival, hoping that she might find something of value to report about. “Why would I want to report about a failed fest? she replied, propelling me to ask myself the same question.
By the end of it, I realized that the obvious and logical answer was this: It’s not worth it.
This might not be the most fitting introduction to this year’s edition, which kicked off last night, but I would be lying if I said I was excited and not skeptical. Experiencing the colossal mayhem of last year’s edition was one of the lowest points of my professional career.
The sight of empty theaters and the herd of Egyptian reporters chasing after Hollywood stars, the talented filmmakers who received a less-than-warm welcome treatment by the fest’s organizers, screenings changing without advance notice, the gossip, scandals, average film selection and, most of all, the awfully poor organization that remains the unabashed hallmark of the fest. I honestly can’t cope with all that.
I can’t see any signs that the festival is getting its act together this year. As usual, the screenings schedule, along with details about the films, side-bars and seminars, were only uploaded on the fest’s website on Monday. Information about the participating filmmakers had not been published until yesterday.
More than any previous rounds, the 33rd edition is comprised of first and second films by filmmakers from around the world. And while it’s always exciting to detect new works and talents – that is the fundamental strongpoint of CIFF – it also means that the official selection could be a hit or miss.
The most distressing anomaly of the 2009 edition is the complete absence of this year’s high-profile films; the films Egyptian audiences highly anticipate and the bread and butter of commercial theaters throughout the event.
Hardly any of the great selection of films shown in Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto has made it to CIFF. If you’re heading to the fest expecting “The White Ribbon, “A Prophet, “The Milk of Sorrow, “Mother or Alejandro Amenábar’s Roman Egypt-set “Agora, you’ll be thoroughly disappointed.
The year’s most acclaimed Middle-Eastern films – Elia Suleiman’s “The Time That Remains, Asghar Farhadi’s “About Elly, Bahman Ghobadi’s “No One Knows about the Persian Cats and Mohamed Al Daradji’s “Son of Babylon – are also conspicuously absent.
Miraculously, and against all odds, CIFF has managed to squeeze in some gems that deserve to be seen by a large audience. A total of 150 films from 67 countries are participating this year.
On top of the must-see list are three entries in the Arabic film competition that have stirred substantial buzz in international and regional fests alike: Najwa Najjar’s romantic drama “Pomegranates and Myrrh, Abbas Fahdel’s war-time drama “Dawn of the World starring Hafsia Herzi (“Secret of the Grain ), Cherien Dabis’ immigrant comedy “Amreeka and Ahmed Abdalla ensemble indie drama “Heliopolis, starring Khaled Abol Naga, Hany Adel and Aida Abdel Aziz.
Screening out of competition are Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s environmental documentary “Home, Haile Gerima’s highly acclaimed African epic “Teza (screened as part of the African cinema section), Rachid Bouchareb’s 2009 Silver Berlin Bear winner “London River, Ruba Nada’s romance “Cairo Time, starring Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig; and Ahmed Maher’s widely discussed debut feature “The Traveler starring Omar Sharif.
India, the guest of honor, is represented by a mildly satisfactory collection of new films, the highlight of which is Neeraj Pandey’s indie thriller “A Wednesday. The fest also presents a tribute sidebar for Algerian cinema comprised of 11 films.
The 2009 fest is dedicated to great Egyptian filmmaker Shadi Abdel Salam. The newly restored version of his masterpiece “The Night of Counting Years will be screened Wednesday night at the Sound and Light theater in front of the Pyramids.
The 33rd edition hosts four Hollywood stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, Lucy Liu and Tom Berenger. Indian stars of “Slumdog Millionaire, Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan, will be attending the fest alongside novelist Vikas Swarup whose book, “Q&A, the film was based upon.
The biggest draw of the 2009 edition is great Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio, director of one of the year’s best films, “Vincere, who will receive a lifetime achievement award. Two films of his are featured: “The Nanny (1999) and “My Mother’s Smile (2002). Ironically, “Vincere, one of the most successful films of Bellocchio’s 44-year-old career, isn’t included in his tribute sidebar.
The most puzzling omission of the festival this year is Iran, who is not represented by a single film. “Persian Cats director Bahman Ghobadi, winner of Cannes’ 2009 Un Certain Regard award, told me last week in Doha that he wanted his film to be screened in Cairo, yet none of the fest organizers had approached him. Does this omission represent a political move from the Ministry of Culture’s side caused by the deteriorating relationship between Egypt and Iran? I wouldn’t rule this assumption out.
The biggest shock I recently learned of the current edition is the exaggerated fees the fest’s press center has enforced on foreign and Arab journalists.
According to multiple sources close to the fest, a number of journalists have been asked a sum of $500 for their accreditation. Accreditation for the world’s top film festivals is usually free of charge. Now, who decided to put this fee into effect and why? No one knows.
The more pressing question is this: Who decides which journalists to invite and what is the criteria used to invite foreign journalists? I honestly don’t have an answer, and I highly doubt the festival committee does either.
I started covering the CIFF four years ago with an open mind and a naïve conviction that it has the potential to improve; to grow back into the international festival it once was during the heydays of its former president Saad El-Din Wahba.
With every passing year, I became increasingly disillusioned with the entire institution of a fest marching in steady steps into irrelevance. CIFF has grown to symbolize everything wrong with modern Egypt itself: corruption, favoritism and chaos.
Over the past three months, I’ve heard countless amusing anecdotes about the fest from various Arab and foreign filmmakers and critics who, nearly without exception, have had horrid experiences in it. Egyptian filmmakers cannot be blamed for refusing to enlist their films in this year’s edition. After all, when was the last time a film gained any benefit from either participating in the fest or winning an award?
As always, international coverage of the fest will be restricted on the opening ceremony, supplemented with a few stills of the Hollywood stars scattered on the wire services, and, if we’re lucky, the occasional story by the Guardian or other top news source focusing on the social implications of the fest.
Like every year, no one will pay attention to the films; filmmakers will curse their unlucky stars for accepting to participate in a fest where no one is interested in watching their work. Expected organizational catastrophes aside, I’m still quite positive though that there are several talents waiting to be discovered and supported this year.
And for that reason and that reason alone, we will continue to cover this festival. Just don’t expect us to cheer while more things go wrong.