Cairo International Film Festival keeps Egyptian cinema rooted

The 41st edition of the Cairo Film Festival kicked off its nine-day event with news that it will now be considered an Oscar-qualifying film festival.

The doors of this year’s CIFF opened on 20 November with promises of events to shape the annual festival into one with more international influences from outside the Middle East.

Filmmaker Mohamed Hefzy, the CIFF’s president now for its second year, and executive director Omar Kassem announced just before the start of the festival that more premiere screenings will take place this year in an effort to boost the importance of the CIFF.

Shortly before the opening, Hefzy announced that this year’s edition will host the world and international premiers of 20 feature and seven short films, making it the first in the history of the CIFF.

Opening night

The Middle East screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a crime epic produced by Netflix, opened the first night followed by the first round of awards.

Terry Gilliam, formerly from the comedy series Monty Python, received a lifetime achievement award. Special honours were also bestowed upon renowned Egyptian filmmakers Sherif Arafa and Menna Shalaby.

This year’s country of focus is Mexico, with a line-up of films showcasing the different layers to Mexican cinema that is not as known outside the Americas.

While emphasis is on widening the festival, there remains the element of recreating Egypt as the epicenter of cinema; once known to be an avant-garde industry with high rates of production.

Heydays of cinema

Egypt’s cinema came to the scene in the 1920s after Aziza Amir, a theatre actress who had seen films in Paris, used her contacts to set up a production company in Cairo.

The early days of developing Egyptian cinema was largely due to women, notes Magda Wassef, a film historian of Arab cinema and former president of the Cairo Film Festival.

The first feature film in 1927, Leila, demonstrated the potential of the industry.

The 1930s then saw cinema further expand with the creation of the Misr studio financed by philanthropist Talaat el-Harb, who has his own square in downtown Cairo. The studio would finance the studies of Egyptians to go abroad who would then return and share the knowledge.

1936 marked the big moment for Egyptian cinema when the film Wedad starring up and coming musician Oum Kalthoum, was screened at the Venice film festival to much praise.

The model for Egypt’s cinema came from Hollywood, Wassef told RFI.

“Egyptian cinema followed Hollywood in creating an Egyptian star system.”

At the time, Egypt was very cosmopolitan, and its doors were open in particular to those from all over to come help develop cinema.

At the time, the countries of the Maghreb and the Levant were under French occupation, and the Gulf States hadn’t yet discovered oil. So Egypt really had the best circumstances to grow its film industry and distribute it around the Arabic-speaking world.

As production and distribution soared, so did sales across the region, making Egypt the powerhouse of the Middle Eastern and North African film industry throughout much of the 20th century.

Demise of the industry

Following the surge of avant-garde cinema during the 60s and 70s, the political films of the 80s, the 90s saw Egyptian cinema take a dive.

The film industry began to take root and grow tremendously in other Arabic-speaking countries.

“Television also became a threat, as did video and piracy, so films didn’t sell…and it’s a big a problem today with the internet. We see the films before they hit the cinemas,” adds Wassef.

Boost by the Cairo International Film Festival

The demise of the film industry in Egypt doesn’t mean it’s dead.

“I think there’s much important potential in Egypt. There’s a whole new generation [of filmmakers] who create films without following traditional ways,” notes the film historian.

Added to that is the growing importance of the festivals, such as CIFF, which was created in 1976, based on the Berlin festival.

“It’s [the CIFF] for cinephiles; for those who can’t see films outside the country,” adds Wassef.

That means the festival season is a chance to fill-up all the old existing cinemas that once used to be packed at all hours of the day by eager movie-goers from the public she reminisces.

The love of cinema never left the country which serves as a reminder that while Egypt’s Hollywood status may not be as strong as before, it remains an important player in the movie industry both regionally and internationally.