For the upcoming 43rd edition of the Cairo Film Festival, which is the grande dame of Arab film events, fest chief Mohamed Hefzy and his team have assembled a rich mix of top notch Arab and international titles, including the world premiere of Tunisian star Dhafer L’Abidine’s directorial debut “Ghodwa” and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) premiere of “House of Gucci.”
They have also recruited high-caliber talents and industry personalities such as U.S. producer Lawrence Bender, Emir Kusturica, who is this year’s jury president, Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman, as well as Cannes topper Thierry Fremaux and Egyptian icon Nelly, who are being feted. Hefzy, who is also a prominent Egyptian producer, talked to Variety about how he’s been rebooting Cairo while braving the pandemic and contending with changes in the Arab film festival landscape. Excerpts from the conversation.
This is your fourth year heading Cairo. The journey got a bit bumpy these past couple of editions due to COVID-19 and the arrival on the scene of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea fest that moved into your calendar slot. How do you feel about your accomplishments at this point?
We’ve been giving the festival more international reach. To do that we also had to establish better relations with sales agents and distributors. This, in turn, has also been an integral aspect of the industry component [Cairo Industry Days] we started. We were able to start a successful industry sidebar and that’s helped us connect more with the international industry.
Another thing that’s helped us get more international attention and more international press is the fact that we have better programming. Every year we’ve had a bunch of new films having their world premieres. The programming has really helped. And the quality of screenings has improved. There have been all these challenges, but for me wooing the industry back was the biggest aspect of what we’ve been able to accomplish.
What are your thoughts about how the Arab film festival landscape is shaping up with three big events: El Gouna, Cairo, and the nascent Red Sea fest almost back-to-back between October and December?
I think this year we managed to avoid disaster. But I don’t see any effort to try to really co-ordinate. In Cannes I suggested: ‘why don’t we have a meeting with all the Arab festival directors to talk about the future?’ To talk about dates, about ambitions, challenges, etc. Honestly, some people were very interested in the idea, and some others were not. I think we need more of that. I think we need more co-ordination. We need to speak among each other more. I’m used to doing that with other festival directors. But it’s on an individual level. There is no initiative among Arab festivals to really sit down formally at a table and discuss relevant, pertinent subjects about the future of all of us.
What are some of the key issues you’d like to thrash out?
There are changes happening. The landscape is changing. Obviously there isn’t that much money available to support Arab cinema and [on the part of festivals with co-production markets] that comes with the condition of a premiere requirement, at least in the Arab world. I don’t know how other Arab festivals are going to compete with that. In terms wanting to program the best Arab films.
Maybe this competitiveness will transition to something that is more in a spirit of collaboration. I understand there will always be competition for film premieres and for guests, and projects at co-production markets. But at the end of the day there is also something that has to be done for the benefit of filmmakers. We need to allow these films to be seen in a way that gives them all a chance and gives audiences a chance to experience films.
Just to be clear. We are talking about Cairo, El Gouna, Red Sea, Marrakech, Carthage, and Amman. Right?
I’m open to be as inclusive as needs be. I’m talking about the four or five festivals you just mentioned that compete for the regional premieres. Even an unofficial meeting could be helpful. But something to get a conversation started. At least about figuring out dates and regulations in a way that doesn’t hurt the other festivals. And more importantly doesn’t hurt the films.
I’m not saying that we can’t live without it. And we are going to continue to make plans and announce our dates, and life goes on. But it’s going to get more difficult in the coming years. And you never know what other new festivals could pop up.