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A 7 Hour Difference is one of the movies that will screen at this year's Cairo International Film Festival. Courtesy Cairo International Film Festival
A 7 Hour Difference is one of the movies that will screen at this year's Cairo International Film Festival. Courtesy Cairo International Film Festival

Cairo International Film Festival faces uncertain future

After the revolution, the once prestigious festival finds itself in a state of flux.

More than two decades ago, when the film critic Essam Zakarea was a 23-year-old conscript, he spent two days in a military prison as punishment for jumping the fence at his army camp to attend the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF).

"When it was time for the Cairo International Film Festival, I asked for permission to go home and my commanding officer refused, so I escaped from the camp," says Zakarea. "I attended a few films I had heard about and wanted to see; then I went back to camp. They put me in prison for two days."

As a young film fan in the 1980s, Zakarea says, the punishment was worth it.

Launched in 1976, the Cairo International Film Festival was the first film festival in the Middle East. The CIFF held a prestigious place on the international and regional festival scene during a period when Egyptian-led cinema in the region was in decline.

The early years of the festival played a vital role in shaping Egypt's art-house filmmakers of today, according to the screenwriter Rafik Sabban.

"I think this festival, and other Arabic film festivals changed the point of view of new, young directors. There are many taboo subjects and restrictions for expression in Arabic cinema. With these festivals they learn that there is no impossible subject, and money doesn't make great art," says Sabban, who's been on the selection committee since the festival's founding.

Now, as the festival gears up for its first edition since last year's uprising and the cancellation of the 2011 edition, Egypt's independent film community remains wary about the future of the event. The 10-day festival will include 175 films from 64 countries, which will take part in three competitions: international feature film, Arab feature film and the newly added Tahrir Square Prize, given to a film focused on human rights.

Despite being one of only 14 festivals accredited as competitive by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations, the CIFF's reputation has suffered in recent years.

"They spend millions of pounds on the festival, then you screen films in empty theatres," says Zakarea. "I can forgive bad organisation, lack of good films or big stars, but what I cannot forgive is that there is no audience for these films. The main aim of any festival is to promote the cinema culture and improve people's taste for art."

Under the management of the Ministry of Culture since the 1980s, the CIFF has struggled to fill seats or secure adequate funds in recent years. Critics say the festival is poorly managed and focuses more on the red carpet than reaching the public. But a decision last year by the former culture minister to hand over the organisation of film festivals to civil society - with state financial support but without interference - seemed likely to set the festival on a new path.

"After the revolution there were great expectations for the festival among intellectuals and young people," says Zakarea. "There's a local proverb that says give the bread to its baker, so the ministry needs to give the festival to the people who are interested in cinema and promoting culture."

The former Minister of Culture commissioned a civil entity comprising members of the film community to organise the 2012 edition. But a court ruling cited a lack of transparency regarding the selection process and asked the ministry to redo the bidding process. In the end, the ministry, now headed by Emad Badr El Din, chose to simply keep the festival in the hands of its Mubarak-era managing team. The actor and musician Ezzat Abou Ouf, the festival director since 2006, returned to the helm with only two months to organise the CIFF.

"It's a very short time. We're doing what we normally do in a year in only two months, but this is the spirit of the times - to succeed in spite of all the problems and obstacles we have. And we're here, we've done it," he says. He admits the festival continues to face a huge divide between the films it screens and the wider public's taste for slapstick comedy with song and dance routines.

Despite critical acclaim, few art films are distributed in mainstream cinemas. Instead, Egyptian audiences favour big-budget farces that typically feature well-known stars. Over the festival's history, not once has a film that won the CIFF's top prize been distributed in Egypt's cinemas.

But for those who spent their youth counting down until the next edition of the festival, its role in society, however reduced, is vital.

"The festival was a big opportunity to see the world at a time when we only had two government channels. When the CIFF came each year it was a real festival, something we celebrated," says Zakarea. "Even now that people can see uncut and forbidden films all the time, a public screening of uncensored films is important to promote modernity and democracy. People gather and discuss the films. They get exposed to ideas that change their minds indirectly."

The Cairo International Film Festival runs from tomorrow until December 6

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