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Cairo Film Festival Undergoes Radical Revamp

The Cairo Film Festival, for its 40th edition, is reinventing itself.

With Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy at the helm who, at 43, is its youngest president, the oldest fest in the Arab and African worlds is undergoing a radical revamp in a major effort to get its mojo back after a decade of decline due to the country’s post-revolution turbulence.

Hefzy, who is known internationally for the steady stream of edgy top notch titles birthed by his Film Clinic shingle — most recently Cannes standout “Yomeddine,” which is Egypt’s current candidate for the foreign-language Oscar — is the first Cairo fest chief chosen from within the country’s film industry ranks. Since being appointed in March he has been working incessantly in tandem with respected critic and academic Youssef Sherif Rizkalla, who remains the fest’s artistic director.

Eight months later, the signs of renewal are visible. Starting from a reconfiguration of the festival’s programming grid, now comprising galas and a Midnight Screening section, to the re-introduction of an industry component called the Cairo Industry Days and the Cairo Film Connection co-production platform, which had been scrapped. This year Arabic film projects in various stages will be competing for a total of $110,000 in cash prizes in Cairo, which puts the Middle East’s film and TV industry’s historic hub back on the map as a major driver with the potential, going forward, to fill the void left by the now defunct Dubai fest and market.

Significantly, roughly 120 industryites are expected to make the trek as guests of the Cairo Film Connection, including execs from Participant Media, HBO, Netflix, France’s Gaumont and Middle East players OSN, Front Row Distribution, and New Century Productions and Aroma Studios.

The fest’s slimmed-down lineup of some 150 titles, down from roughly 200, features a rich assortment of recent standouts plucked from the international circuit, such as U.S. director Peter Farrelly’s “The Green Book,” which is the opener; Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”; Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”; Thai auteur Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s hypnotic “Manta Ray”; and “Euphoria” by Italy’s Valeria Golino, along with plenty of fresh Arabic fare.

Oscar-winning Danish director Bille August is presiding over the main jury and Ralph Fiennes will be feted with a career award, as will veteran Egyptian megastar Hassan Hosny, known for supporting young talents in the pan-Arab movie industry, and prominent young Egyptian composer Hisham Nazih (“The Blue Elephant”).

The introduction of nightly red-carpet screenings featuring a dozen international pics with talents in tow is considered crucial to raising the fest’s international profile besides some more ceremonial big names. Kazakh writer-director Sergey Dvortsevoy and actress Samal Yeslyamova will be coming to Cairo for a gala of drama “Ayka,” which competed in Cannes; Argentine director Juan Vera will be making the trek with his San Sebastian opener “An Unexpected Love,” with the romancer’s lead star Mercedes Moran also expected. Filipino auteur Brillante Mendoza, who is also on the jury, will be screening his “Alpha, the Right to Kill,” and hold an onstage conversation.

In the past the Cairo fest always struggled to get the best films, so Hefzy and Rizkalla have now stepped up their efforts to “compete for Middle East premieres for the various sections, especially the competition,” Hefzy said in a wide-ranging interview (see separate Q&A) in which he underlined that for the 40th edition “we’ve managed to achieve that, to a large extent because there is no Dubai,” but also because they’ve simply been more aggressive. For these reasons Cairo’s “Arabic competition this year is particularly strong,” he noted.

Accordingly, the Horizons of Arab Film Competition section comprises new works from veterans and newcomers, such as Saudi director Mahmoud Sabbagh’s black comedy “Amra and the Second Marriage,” Tunisian auteur Mahmoud bin Mahmoud’s “Fatwa,” and Egyptian first-timer Amir El-Shenawy’s “Kilo 64,” about a young man who leaves his well-paid job in the pharmaceutical industry in Cairo to start farming outside the city.

Egyptian-Austrian first-time helmer A.B. Shawky, whose “Yomeddine” is making a big splash, is presiding over the Arab competition jury. But there are Arab titles sprinkled in other sections such as Egyptian actor-turned-helmer Ahmed Magdy’s directorial debut “The Giraffe” and Moroccan director Meryem Benm’barek’s “Sofia,” both of which depict pregnancy out of wedlock, albeit in very different ways.

Arabic feature films in the various sections will compete for a new $15,000 prize, while all festival entries will be eligible for a new festival audience award voted by the public worth $20,000, to be equally divided between the film’s producer and its local distributor.

A special nine-title sidebar will be dedicated to celebrating female Arab directors, which will also be the topic of a panel for which Palestine’s Annemarie Jacir (“Wajib”), Algeria’s Sofia Djama (“The Blessed”), Tunisia’s Kaouther Ben Hania (“Beauty and the Dogs”), and Egypt’s Hala Khalil (“Nawara”) and Hala Lofty (“Coming Forth by Day”) have been recruited.

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