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Looking back at the lineups of key festivals such as Cannes and Venice this year, 2019 stands out as a banner year for movies from the African continent and the Arab world.

During a panel hosted at the Netflix-sponsored industry event Atlas Workshops during the Marrakech Film Festival, Rémi Bonhomme, who works at Cannes’ Critics’ Week and heads up the conference, pointed out the vital role of festivals in showcasing films from the MENA region.

“There were even films from the region playing in the official selection at Cannes, most of which were debut films, apart from Elia Suleiman’s “It Must Be Heaven.” He cited Mati Diop’s “Atlantics,” which competed at Cannes and won the Grand Prize, and “Papicha” and “Adam,” which played in Un Certain Regard. These three films are representing Senegal, Algeria and Morocco, respectively, in the international feature film section of the Oscars.

In Venice, the Tunisian film “A Son” by Mehdi Barsaoui played in the Horizons section and went on to win big at Cairo. Another Tunisian film, Ala Eddine Slim’s “Tlamess,” played in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, and was competing at Marrakech. Meanwhile, the Sudanese film “You Will Die at 20” by Amjad Abu Alala won the Luigi De Laurentiis Award at Venice and the Golden Star at El Gouna festival.

The panel was comprised of Mohamed Hefzy, the thriving Egyptian producer who runs Film Clinic and heads the Cairo festival; Claire Diao, a member of Directors’ Fortnight committee, and founder of the org Sudu Connexion; Daniela Persico, a programmer at Locarno; and Sarah Chazelle, the co-founder of French distribution and international sales banner Jour2Fete.

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The panelists suggested that while these victories should be applauded, there is still a long way to go for the vast majority of films from the MENA region for which festivals are the only viable avenue to be shown to audiences, when local film industries are still emerging and theatrical distribution is nearly nonexistent.

Along with El Gouna and Marrakech, the Cairo film festival, which was taken over by Hefzy last year, is providing select films from the Arab world with a strong launchpad and is helping filmmakers get visibility beyond the MENA region by attracting international press. Cairo has an international competition and a section dedicated to Arab films, which grew from eight to 12 films between 2018 and 2019.

Speaking about the debate around gender parity and diversity in festival programming, Hefzy said that festivals can play a big role in promoting ethnic minorities and women, but noted that inclusion is often easier to accomplish for a festival like Toronto, which shows 270 films than for festivals like Venice and Cannes, which have 80 or 90 films each.

Still, raising the issue of film nationalities is rejected by most programmers. “Cinema matters, not the country of origin,” said Diao, adding that there were 50 applications from the MENA region, and only one was selected, the Tunisian film “Tlamess.”

Most participants on the panel agreed that getting a sales agent on board early on to decide on the festivals strategy was a prerequisite.

“If you go to a festival without a sales agent you burn chance of building a future for your film. Once your film is selected I strongly advise the producer to find a sales agent,” said Persico. “If you go to Berlin without a sales agent by the time of Cannes your film will have died out.”

But “for some smaller Arab films, finding a well-connected international sales agent can be tough because the region is lacking a strong pan-Arab distribution network,” said Daniel Ziskind, partner and producer at Film Clinic which launched a year ago an international sales and distribution division operating in the region and handled “Yomeddine,” and most recently “You Will Die at 20,” among others. Within the MENA region, there are only a few prominent sales companies handling worldwide rights, notably the Cairo-based banner Mad Solutions, and Cercamon in Dubai. Beyond the region, a handful of French and German sales agents have shown interest for select titles, but it’s either because of the track record of the director or producer, or because the film is about to be selected at a big festival.

Chazelle, whose company Jour2Fete has handled five films from the MENA region within the last couple years, including “Papicha,” “Felicity,” “A Son,” “The Challat of Tunis” and “Beauty and the Dogs,” is one of the few outfits aiming to get involved in projects as early and possible, even at script stage.

“Sometimes films are brought to us by producers after they have already had three or four festivals… It’s hard to come on board at that stage,” said Chazelle, who added that building a strategy and choosing the right festival for the right movie and determining which festival to go first is crucial.

Indeed, as more and more festivals are aiming for world premieres, opening a film in the wrong festival can kill its prospects on the festival circuit right off the bat, said Diao, who also advised producers in countries with emerging film industries to start working with jurists who will pay close attention to contracts.

Bonhomme, meanwhile, pointed out approaching festival programmers could be daunting for producers or sales agents who don’t have any connections and advised them to watch films that have been selected at a given festival to get an idea of the type of films that may be a good fit, even if there is no editorial line, per se.

With seven or eight festivals in the Arab world and only 80 to 90 Arab films being made each year, the risk going forward is to see these festivals overlapping with each other, especially if the Marrakech Film Festival moves to November as it’s been rumored.

But so far the competition has stirred some emulation between festivals and Cairo, for instance, has benefited from the success of El Gouna, said Hefzy. “Festivals are the best way for audiences to access these films so we need to be complementary and think about what’s best for the industry,” he said.