My love-hate relationship with the Cairo Film Festival
This will be my sixth year covering the Cairo International Film Festival and I have to admit, I still feel excited about it. Fully aware of its shortcomings, I’ve had my share of its good moments and blunders.
Even though many critics would say (and I agree) that the selection of films are not the best, it’s still an opportunity to watch a lot of non-commercial non-Hollywood films and meet people passionate about filmmaking — artists not just stars.
But who am I kidding; it’s also an opportunity to rub shoulders with the stars.
It’s there that I interviewed Morgan Freeman, which became the highlight of my life for a year. I had the pleasure to have lunch with him along with Pakinam Amer, Tamara Yousry, Yasmine Shehata and Mariam Abu Ouf. He struck us all as a man with the spirit and passion of a 20-something, not the veteran actor in his late 60s.
It’s there that I met Mustafa Al-Akkad (director/producer of The Message and Omar El Mokhtar), one year before he died in Jordan’s 2005 bombings.
It’s there that I saw Omar Sharif for the first time in real life. I interviewed him later on.
And I briefly met Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now), during the premiere of Leilat Sequot Baghdad (a personal favorite).
I’ve also attended press conferences for Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron.
During this year, a young Egyptian actor was relentlessly hitting on the stars (there’s no other way to describe his comments and questions to them at press conferences). I think he also told Theron at the press conference that she’s cute or something along these lines. And Alicia Silverstone eventually told him “I’m married.”
This actor and others like him aside, I’ve met a host of filmmakers from all around the world, passionate about what they do. Some swore never to come back — director Juanma Bajo Ulloa of the brilliant film Fragil is one of them — and others like French director Safy Nebbou, who I met in 2004, came back last year to win another prize.
Criticism from participating filmmakers range from lack of organization to allegations that the winning films are known way before the closing ceremony. Concerning that one of those winning filmmakers told me, award in hand, that he had received a call a couple of days before the closing telling him to travel to Egypt and he’ll find a pleasant surprise, this proposition isn’t that far fetched.
There’s a consensus in criticism that the local press are only interested in covering Egyptian and Arab films, leaving the screenings of beautiful foreign films relatively empty. (Foreign press is largely absent). One Indian producer/director approached me a couple of years ago, asking if I could help him invite more journalists to his morning screening. I did, but still, my film contacts at the time couldn’t fill the hall.
I’ve also watched a lot scandals unfold. An Egyptian producer and a critic took the ‘discussion’ to a whole new level, and if it weren’t for the stage separating the two, the fight would have definitely got physical.
Aside from how they described each other when interviewed later (‘Ostaz eh, da combarss,’ the producer told us), it turned out that the reason for the fight wasn’t the film as we thought. A knowledgeable source from the industry claimed that this specific critic was criticizing the performance of one new actress, who was secretly married to this producer, who didn’t want anyone badmouthing his trophy wife. But that was unconfirmed.
In the screening of Dunia (officially translated as “Don’t Kiss Me in the Eye”), Lebanese director Jocelyne Saab and Egyptian film critic Khaireya El Beshlawy were also inches away from physically attacking each others after yet another scandalous press conference, with each calling the other crazy in later interviews.
Hala Khalil’s Cut and Paste’s screening wasn’t scandalous but it was full of theatricals.
The screening of Inas El-Degheidy’s El Bahethat An El Horreya (Freedom Seekers) should be credited for uniting the feminists female critics with the all-mucho male critics, as both camps struggled to hold their laughs during and after the screening. Some laughed out loud though. And they all joked about its absurdity and bad filmmaking in harmonious unison. Bless You Inas.
Lost in Translation?
The problem, which can be blamed for the scandals and the unintelligent comments that plague the post-film discussions, is the labeling: In English-language schedules, it’s referred to as a press conference, but in Arabic-language schedules, it’s referred to as nadwa or a panel discussion.
It leaves room for people, some supposedly established film critics, to take the microphone and share with the rest of us their experience watching film. Aside from the fact that many of them have a lot of space in their newspapers and magazines to do just that, often enough time runs out before more important and relevant questions about the film, its script and production are asked or answered.
Sometimes, the nadwa/press conference moderators feel obliged to either tell off the person with the mic or take the opportunity to share their own experience with the class. Some of those moderators/critics even offer more elaborate and opinionated translations (usually from English to Arabic) of the filmmakers’ answers.
My reaction ranges from bored to embarrassed. My dear friend and colleague Joseph Fahim (Daily News Egypt’s culture editor and film critic and the person to follow in this or any festival) once wrote that my way of coping with these nadwa/conferences is to draw people hanging or shooting themselves. Unfortunately, it’s true.
But my problems aren’t limited to the questions. Every year I get really close to punching a TV reporter in the face, with ART’s Bousy Shalaby on top of the list. All have a sense of self entitlement to cut off any conversation to grab any director/actor/scriptwriter by the hand and lead them outside the hall. There’s absolutely no regard to the journalist or critic talking to this filmmaker or the others who have been waiting for their turn in the conversation/interview.
They brush off anyone loud criticism with “It’s TV” with a how-can’t-you-understand-you-insignificant-creature look. I have no idea if I should blame the video cameras for fueling this sense of entitlement. But if you ever hear about a journalist beating a TV station’s crew with their own camera, there’s a 90 percent chance it’ll be me.
I’ve met few filmmakers who didn’t allow this to happen, politely telling off people who cut into conversations. Dutch filmmaker Albert ter Heerdt is one of those people.
I’ll still go to this year’s festival, but I like every year I’ll be cautious about blunders. This is however not a professional analysis of the festival or the unconfirmed allegations of financial corruption. Many of the world’s top film critics and publications have wrote detailed studies of its shortcomings and how it can be fixed. But every year, festival organizers choose to ignore that. They don’t even invite those top critics and others like them. And that’s only one of the reason why the festival doesn’t get adequate coverage in international media, that if it get any at all.
Disclaimer: I’ve put too many links here, more than I usually do. This post is readable without those links. But if you a drama addict, some of the stories I linked to document in more detail some of weirdest incidents I’ve witnessed. Unfortunately, some stories are not available online anymore or have been included in online archives that require payment for access. Some of those unavailable stories though were aggregated by other websites and blogs and this is why, some links don’t direct to newspapers/magazine websites.
A round up of last year’s festival: