The Cairo International Film Festival.. At the ripe age of 40

05-12-2018 02:07 PM

Mary Fikry

It was the 40th round of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), for cinema lovers an event worthy of celebration. And celebrate they did. Filmmakers from around the globe converged on Cairo to participate in the nine-day event that took place from 20 to 29 November 2018, during which 169 films from 59 countries were screened.
CIFF was inaugurated in 1976 as an annual event, and has run uninterrupted ever since, except in 2011 and 2013 when it was cancelled owing to the political turmoil and budget limitations that came with the Arab Spring. It is the only international feature film festival recognised by FIAPF (Fédératon Internationale des Association des Producteurs de Films; English: International Federation of Film Producer Associations) in Africa and the Arab World.

This year’s round of the festival set off at the Cairo Opera House’s Main Hall on 20 November, presided over by scriptwriter and producer Mohammed Hefzy.
The opening ceremony was attended by Egypt’s Culture Minister, Ines Abdel-Dayem; Social Solidarity Minister Ghada Wali; Tourism Minister Rania al-Mashat; and Planning Minister Hala al-Saeed, as well as some 1,200 filmmakers, actors and actresses, and cinema fans in Egypt and all over the world.

The figure ‘40’
The festival opened with a documentary on the beginnings of cinema in the world and in Egypt. With voiceover by veteran actor and presenter Samir Sabry, the documentary included voice recordings by actors and actresses of the 1920s in Egypt, and referred to Egypt’s great industrialist Talaat Harb who established Studio Misr among the first and leading Egyptian studios.
Mr Sabry then came out on stage, excitedly reminding the audience that it was he who had presented the first round of the CIFF back in 1976. He saluted all former CIFF presidents, including star actor Hussein Fahmy, Dr Magda Wassef, actor and singer Ezzat Abu-Ouf, screenwriter Sherif al-Shobashy, and many others down to the current president, screenplay writer Muhammad Hefzy (born 1975) who is the youngest president to head the festival.

Egyptian star actor Maged al-Kidwany joined Sabry on stage, expressing joy at being part of this year’s festival. He said the figure ‘40’ holds great significance in Egyptian folk culture, and goes back to ancient Egypt where it was associated with the mummification process, the crowning of the body in preparation for eternal life. “Likewise,” Mr Kidwany said, “this 40th round represents a coronation ceremony for Egyptian cinema.”
Another widely popular Egyptian actor, Sherif Mounir, gave a thrilling surprise performance on the drums. He spoke of his passion for the CIFF, how he would care to attend every round, and how he participated as member on one of its juries. “Despite occasional setbacks,” Mr Mounir said, “Egyptian cinema will always move forward.”
Egyptian actress Sherine Reda introduced the festival episodes in Arabic and English. She welcomed the guests saying that: “cinema theatre is the only place where people do not fear the dark…films inspire us…it is a place where our ideas flow far and wide.”

Shortens distances
Thanking the four cabinet ministers present, Mr Hefzy also extended thanks to the festival’s artistic director Youssef Cherif Rizkallah, and Egyptian tycoon Samih Sawiris who sponsored this year’s round.

Culture Minister Ms Abdel-Dayem expressed pleasure to be part of the 40th Cairo International Film Festival’s opening ceremony. She mentioned with gratitude all the figures who were pivotal in bringing the festival to what it is today, starting with its founder, the great Egyptologist, writer, and cultural figure Kamal al-Mallakh (1918 – 1987). “The Ministry of Culture actively supports the festival,” Ms Abdel-Dayem said. “Cinema roots values of freedom and respecting the other; it shortens distances between people.”
Oscar-winning director Bille Auguste from Denmark, president of the CIFF40 International Jury, was introduced. “It’s honour to be among the jury of this year’s festival, a big responsibility that requires full objectivity,” he said.
This year’s festival highlighted Russian cinema which dates back to more than a century, and honoured Russian director Pavel Lungin. Lungin was nominated for 300 international awards of which he won 12; these included a Cannes award in 1990. On receiving the award Lungin humbly said: “It didn’t occur to me that I had made important films deserving of such honour, therefore I give my thanks to the CIFF’s management for the honour. Never in my life have I seen people laughing so joyfully at a festival’s opening ceremony! You truly deserve to be capital of world cinema.” He said. “I have visited Egypt several times, and wish to visit it yet again.”

British director, screenplay writer, and plastic artist Peter Greenaway was awarded the Faten Hamama prize for his collective works. Greenaway’s works have been described as “harmonious pictures”; he was nominated for 50 prizes of which he won 26. “I have been fortunate to have made 60 films in 40 years,” Mr Greenaway said. Today, he remarked, cinema is changing; modern technology and smart phones make directors of all who use them. He said he looked forward to making films that keep up with today’s varied perspectives”.

Ralph Fiennes received the Faten Hamama Outstanding Achievement Award. The actor/director is best known for his iconic role as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise.
A number of local cinema figures were honoured, among them veteran actor Hassan Hosny, musician Hisham Nazeeh, filmmaker Youssef Cherif Rizkallah, and Samir Sabry who gallantly gifted his honouring to the name of Kamal al-Mallakh.

The opening ceremony concluded with screening Green Book, American comedy-drama film which received the People’s Choice Award in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Green Book was written by Brian Hayes Currie, directed by Peter Farrelli, and features stars Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali and Lindan Cardinelli.

Industry days
The festival witnessed seminars on relevant topics. A panel discussion titled ‘How Female Filmmakers in the Arab World Proved to be More Sustainable in International Festival Circuits’ drew attention to the fact that the Arab film industry has a wealth of female talents. Within the festival activities, nine films directed by Arab women were screened. The discussion panel included five female directors who have been recognised internationally in the last few years: Annemarie Jacir from Palestine; Sofia Djama from Algeria; Kaouthar Ben Hania from Tunisia; and Hala Khalil and Hala Lotfy from Egypt.

The Cairo Industry Days was a forum fair that contributed in supporting the Arab film industry in general by providing participants with venues for discussions, meetings, training and workshops in various areas of the industry. It also aimed at facilitating the marketing of films, offering opportunities for networking and getting together those concerned with the film industry.
Another new addition to the festival constituted midnight screenings in the Zamalek cinema, showcasing thrillers, science fiction and horror movies over seven nights of the festival.

The CIFF management decided to cancel the People’s Choice Award owing to technical difficulties which led to a decline in voting. The festival management announced that the decision applied only to the current round, stressing that the voting mechanism would be ameliorated for the upcoming edition.

Twelve-year night
Thursday 29 November saw the closing ceremony of the festival. It was a big night with the awards being handed out for the best in the competition.
Mr Hefzy thanked everyone involved, and expressed his happiness that the tickets of this round of the festival films had sold out, even though they were double the number of last year’s tickets.

The Golden Pyramid for best film went to the Uruguay, Argentina, Spain production A Twelve-Year Night, written and directed by Álvaro Brechner. The film, which was received by Cairo audiences with huge admiration and resounding applause, tells the true story of three prisoners who were members of the Tupamaro urban guerilla movement and were captured at the onset of Uruguay’s military dictatorship that ruled between 1973 and 1985. Taken from their prison cells in a secret military operation, they remained in solitary confinement for a full twelve years, moved between 40 prisons around the country.

Brechner said that he had been in close contact with the three men who had been held prisoners, and attempted to convey their agony and pain throughout 12 years.
He said it was an excruciatingly painful experience for him, but he desired to tell everyone what happens to a human being forced to separate from humanity, from any ‘normal’ life; to have seemingly endless silence imposed on him; to lose all communication with other human beings. “The past loses then all meaning,” he said, “and the future carries no hope. These were men who had fought for freedom, but ended up striving to find meaning in life.”

The Silver Pyramid, Special Jury Prize for best director went jointly to Manta Ray by Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, a Thailand, France, China production; and Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, a production of Germany, Ukraine, France. Manta Ray features events that take place near a coastal village in Thailand, where thousands of Ruhingya refugees drowned. Donbass depicts a local fisherman who finds an injured man lying unconscious in the forest. He rescues the stranger, who does not speak a word, offers him his friendship and names him Thongchai. But when the fisherman suddenly disappears at sea, Thongchai slowly begins to take over his friend’s life – his house, his job, and his ex-wife.
The Bronze Pyramid for Best First or Second work of a director was won by Jamie Jones for his UK film Obey.

Poisonous roses
The Prize for Best Actress went to Zsófia Szamosi for Zsófia Szilágyi’s One Day, Hungary.
Sherif Desoky won Best Actor for his role in Ahmad Abdalla al-Sayed’s EXT. Night, Egypt. The film tells the story of Moe, Toutou, Mustafa, three individuals meeting one extraordinary night, breaking the social norm, each fighting his or her own battle.
Best Artistic Contribution was awarded to Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife, Vietnam. In 19th century rural Vietnam, 14-year-old May becomes the third wife of wealthy landowner Hung. Soon she learns that she can only gain status by giving birth to a male child. Faced with forbidden love and its devastating consequences, May finally comes to an understanding of the brutal truth: the options available to her are few and far between.
Naguib Mahfouz Prize for Best Script went to the Colombia, Denmark, Mexico production Birds of Passage, directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, with a script by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal. The film documents the true-to-life rise and fall of rival Wayuu clans in northern Colombia. With incredible attention to the detail of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu customs, traditions, and celebrations, Gallego and Guerra weave an epic tragedy of pride, greed, and the clash between the old and new worlds.

Ahmed Fawzy Saleh’s Poisonous Roses, Egypt, won the Salah Abu-Seif Special Jury Prize. Set in the confines of an impoverished Cairo neighbourhood, it depicts Saqr, a character who seeks to flee the grubby Egyptian tanners’ district where he lives and works. The film is based on a 1990 novel by Ahmed Zaghloul al-Shiti.

Watani International
5 December 2018

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