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Rebooted Cairo Film Festival Shifts Into Higher Gear

The Cairo Film Festival, which is the grande dame of the Arab world’s cinema shindigs, looks set for a watershed edition, its second headed by producer Mohamed Hefzy whose reboot effort is coming into full swing.

Besides the Middle East launch of Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” which is Cairo’s opener, Hefzy and his team have secured roughly 25 international bows and several world premieres. They’ve lured top talents such as Oscar-winning U.S. writer/director Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”) who is presiding over the main jury, as well as Terry Gilliam and Guillermo Arriaga.

Industry execs making the trek include AGC Studios topper Stuart Ford, AMC Networks’ VP of productions Kristin Jones, and Netflix director of international originals Ahmed Sharkawi, just as TV becomes an integral part of the fest’s market component.

Launched in 1976, amid the Egyptian film industry’s golden age, the Cairo fest soon soared but more recently lost luster due to the country’s political turbulence. Hefzy, who is Cairo’s first president chosen from within the country’s film industry ranks, took charge in 2018 setting it on a new course that last year started to bear fruit.

This year for Cairo’s 41st edition – which will run Nov. 20-29 – Hefzy’s multi-pronged vision has attained sharper focus just as his goal for the event to boost Egypt’s role as the MENA region’s main industry hub also seems to be gaining more traction.

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“Cairo is really trying to be a big festival in that it not only shows lots of films, but it is also a big industry festival,” says Hefzy, noting that from an industry standpoint the Egyptian capital has always been more prominent than Dubai, which before its sudden shuttering last year had for a spell taken away Cairo mantle as the region’s top festival and market.

In terms of the lineup – which Hefzy slimmed-down and reconfigured – what stands out is the push made by Hefzy and Cairo artistic director Ahmed Shawky to go beyond just showing the cream of the festival circuit crop. Instead, they sought out “as many quality premieres as possible” aided by a new programming team that tracks titles around the world and has made Cairo much less Eurocentric.

They’ve secured several world premieres such as Palestinian director Najwa Najjar’s divorce amid diaspora drama “Between Heaven and Earth”; the latest feature from Romanian auteur Andrei Gruzsniczk (“The Escape”), titled “Zavera”; and Colombian helmer David David’s “The Border,” a drama that’s won several work-in-progress prizes about a pregnant indigenous woman living on the Colombian-Venezuelan border who is forced to fend for herself when her husband and her brother are killed.

Both Hefzy and Shawky are particularly proud that Arab films got more representation this year across various sections, including three titles in the international competition where, besides “Heaven and Earth” and Lebanese helmer Ahmad Ghossein’s “All This Victory” (which won a prize in Venice), a berth was scored, probably for the first time in the fest’s history, by a doc titled “Let’s Talk” (pictured) that is also the only Egyptian pic in that section. Directed by Marianne Khoury, “Let’s Talk” interweaves a treasure trove of archive material with cinematic conversations between four women from different generations in the family of late great Egyptian master Youssef Chahine, Arab cinema’s leading light for over half a century, who was the director’s uncle. It’s a family in which life and movies are closely intertwined.

Significantly in October Cairo became the first film event in the Arab world to sign the 5050by2020 gender equality pledge.

The main competition also comprises the international bow of “The Fourth Wall” by Chinese directorial duo Zhang Chong and Zhang Bo, following its world premiere in Shanghai, one of three Chinese titles in the official selection, which attests to Cairo’s close ties with China.

A Focus section devoted to Mexico and its film industry will see prominent Mexican new wave helmers Carlos Reygadas, Michel Franco and Gabriel Ripstein come to Cairo, the idea being, Hefzy says, that they can help stimulate a similarly vibrant indie film scene in Egypt.

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