Fest's new board shakes up old guard

November and December saw two fewer film festivals than usual when Cairo and Damascus cancelled their events due to the turmoil caused by the Arab Spring’s recent uprisings. Cairo, the oldest film fest in the Middle East and Africa, was headed for its 35th edition when its board decided that Egypt’s unsettled state, along with government restructuring, made it prudent to postpone for one year while they regrouped and decided how to proceed.

Part of the decision resulted from major changes made to the Ministry of Culture’s oversight of Egyptian fests, now far more independent following Hosni Mubarak’s fall earlier this year and the intermittent purging of his cronies. In the past few months several new fests have been proposed and older ones reformed, promising a far more vibrant festival landscape than before.

Though guests were always well-looked after at the Cairo Fest, it could be a frustrating place where disorganization in some departments and mixed-bag programming made it feel like it was struggling to hold onto its A-list status. Presumably some of the problems stemmed from the control exerted by the Ministry of Culture, which, post-Revolution, has restructured the way fests are accredited and allows them a far more independent hand than before.

Since February and at least as of November, each fest had to get approval from a newly organized board formed by the National Film Center, which passed on its approval to Emad Abou-Ghazi, the Minister of Culture, whose office funded the Center, which covered half a fest’s budget (the other half to be bankrolled by sponsors, including the Ministry of Tourism).

However, the renewed violence in Tahrir Square last month shook things up, with filmmakers Yousry Nasrallah, Ahmad Abdalla and Magdy Ahmed Aly resigning from the Film Center board in protest and refusing to serve under the umbrella of a government organization. One day later, Abou-Ghazi himself resigned. While this shouldn’t immediately affect the newly formed association overseeing the reborn Cairo Film Festival, it does mean the coming months promise uncertain times until a new minister is appointed and the Film Center’s board regains its legitimacy.

Meanwhile, the Cairo Fest’s committee notified international festival governing body FIAPF of the new organization, and the fest is moving ahead with plans for 2012.

The fest’s board is a mixture of veterans and new faces: film critic Youssef Cherif Rizkallah is president, with Magda Wassef artistic director and producer-helmer Sherif Mandour executive director. Among the emerging generation of new talent joining the association are producer-scripter Mohamed Hefzy, actress-producer Bushra Abdallah and helmer Hala Khalil.

“The re-shuffling and relaunch is a kind of fresh start, much in the same way that the current elections are a fresh start for the country,” says an optimistic Hefzy. “We have the advantage of being able to say ‘we know things weren’t as they should be, so give us a chance to show the world what we can do.’?”

The fest sections are being streamlined, comprising competitions for international features and another for Arab features, and the current plan is to offer cash prizes. Cairo knows it can’t compete in terms of the treasure chests offered by Gulf fests Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai, and refreshingly organizers are committed to screening good films rather than concentrating on world premieres.

In the past, Rizkallah pushed for a reserve pot to pay distribs for noncompeting films using the fest as a distribution platform, and now that he’s prexy, he’s convinced this is a key way to ensure quality programming, despite the financial burden. In addition, organizers are aiming to expand the festival throughout the city, with the center remaining in the Opera House complex but with screenings in satellite cinemas throughout Cairo.

The Cairo fest isn’t the only one on Egypt’s horizon: in addition to Marianne Khoury’s European Panorama, also in Cairo, there’s the Alexandria Film Fest, the Ismailia Children’s Fest and an African fest in Luxor; a separate association is looking to set up a new international fest that will also be based in Luxor.

For Rizkallah, this new interest in fests comes as no surprise.

“People who are organizing these festivals are people who are supporting the Revolution. They want to do things that would help people through cinema, to look at the world in a different way,” he says.

Several members of the film community have been extremely active in the Revolution, at the barricades daily in Tahrir both in January-February and most recently in November, including Ahmad Abdalla, Basma, Khaled Abol Naga, Yousry Nasrallah, Ibrahim El Batout and Amr Waked. “Now we are everywhere,” Abdalla says. “The street is making the new politics now. So far, we are not winning a lot, but after all, we are part of it.”

And both the activism and the events are changing the landscape of Egyptian cinema.

“I felt pity for Lebanese filmmakers, since most of the Lebanese films are about the war somehow,” Abdalla says. “But now I can see it. I had never seen a dead body in my life, and in the last nine months, I saw about 80 bodies. You cannot (shake this) from your head when you make a new film. And it goes for everyone, not only for me.”

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