Two years ago Egyptian film producer and screenwriter Mohamed Hefzy was appointed president of the Cairo Film Festival with a mandate to revamp and relaunch the prominent Arab fest, which had been losing luster due to political turbulence. Having largely accomplished that with last year’s watershed edition, Hefzy had to face new challenges this year, contending with COVID-19, of course. But also with the resignation of the event’s former artistic director, Ahmed Shawky, just days into the job following a social media sh__storm over some past controversial social media posts.

Shortly before the 42nd fest kicked off Hefzy spoke to Variety about how he navigated through it all. Edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did you deal with Shawky’s departure?

After Ahmed’s resignation I was faced with the choice of either to appoint a new artistic director — keeping in mind this was late May/early June — or to continue the edition without an artistic director; with an artistic bureau or a programming team that works together as a group, and then I would kind of help to tie the loose ends. I had Andrew Mohsen who was the co-ordinator of the artistic bureau. So he helped me to connect the dots as well. He’s one of the people whom I relied on very much for this edition.

If I had brought someone in, they would have wanted to hire their own programmers and selection committee and basically start from scratch, and we did not feel that that would be right, given that we had already been programming the festival for three months. I thought: ‘We are halfway there, it doesn’t make sense to bring in a completely new team.’ I have to say in the end I’m glad with the selection we were able to make.

You’ve assembled a nice lineup. But the Arabic competition looks really slim.

The Arabic competition this year is slimmer because we didn’t find a lot of great Arabic films out there, to be honest. Due to COVID-19 a lot of films have been pushed to next year. I am not saying that we don’t like the [Arabic] films that we selected, but we selected very few because we only liked very few.

There are instead plenty of projects at the Cairo Film Connection co-production platform for Arabic films that look really promising.

In terms of projects I think it’s one of the best selections we’ve had. It’s very diverse, lots of new names alongside known ones like Kaouther Ben Hania and Yousry Nasrallah. Bassel Ghandour’s “The Alleys” is one of the few films in post-production. These are really special projects and the fact that we have $250,000 in grants and prizes I think is going to be a great help in getting these films either to completion or into production. It shows that when production ground to a halt people were adamant to keep developing stuff and getting things ready for when things go back to normal.

How is Cairo Film Connection business going to be done?

Business meetings will be both online and physical, as are the panels. We also have another market event called MENI, the Middle East Initiative Pitching Market, which is a market to pitch TV projects held for the second year in partnership with the Middle East Media Initiative (MEMI), under the U.S. Department of State, which will be online as well.