Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 10 December 2019

Arab premieres and Venice favourites: What to expect at this year's Cairo International Film Festival

The revitalised festival, which kicks off its 41st edition tomorrow, is putting the best of Arab cinema in the spotlight

Sami Bouajila and Najla Ben Abdallah in 'Bik Eneich - Un Fils'; the film will screen as part of Ciff's Arab Cinema Competition. Coutesy Jour2Fete
Sami Bouajila and Najla Ben Abdallah in 'Bik Eneich - Un Fils'; the film will screen as part of Ciff's Arab Cinema Competition. Coutesy Jour2Fete

In his second year as president of the Cairo International Film Festival, Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy continues to push to make the extravaganza a must-attend event, filling the void created by the absence of the Dubai International Film Festival.

This year’s festival starts tomorrow and Hefzy has reduced the number of films screening, while increasing the emphasis on industry events and doubling down on the focus on regional cinema.

British director Terry Gilliam will be among the festival’s guests, actress Menna Shalaby will receive the Faten Hamama Excellence Award and the event will also celebrate being the first Arab film festival to sign the 5050 by 2020 gender equality pledge.

Mohamed Hefzy, president of Cairo International Film Festival. Reuters
Mohamed Hefzy has implemented various changes since becoming president of Cairo International Film Festival. Reuters

On the programming side, Ciff’s delegated artistic director Ahmed Shawky has moved Cairo away from being a “festival of festivals” to showcase new films, particularly from the Arab world. Three films that will be given their world premieres in Cairo are playing in the International Competition. These are Palestinian director Najwa Najjar’s much-anticipated divorce drama Between Heaven and Earth, David David’s Border, about bandits operating on the border between Colombia and Venezuela, and Zavera by Romanian auteur Andrei Gruzsniczki.

Also playing in the International Competition is Let’s Talk, in which Egyptian director Marianne Khoury takes a look at four generations of her family through discussions with her daughter. It will have its world premiere at International Documentary Film Amsterdam before it is screened in Cairo. Also in the competition line-up is Ahmad Ghossein’s drama All This Victory, Ulaa Salim’s Sons of Denmark and Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s Mindanao, which mixes animation with a documentary about the mother of a cancer patient.

Three films will also be given their world premieres in the Horizons of Arab Cinema Competition, including UAE-Lebanese co-­production Beirut Terminus by Elie Kamal. The documentary uses Lebanon’s discarded railway to pose questions about the country’s past, present and uncertain future. The two other films to get their world premieres in this section are from MoroccoFor the Cause, a border comedy by veteran director Hassan Benjelloun, and Mohamed Nadif’s The Women in Block J, which is set in a women’s psychiatric ward in Casablanca.

The strong line-up in the Arab Cinema Competition includes appearances by two Venice Film Festival favourites, Saudi filmmaker Shahad Ameen’s Scales and Mehdi Barsaoui’s Tunisian family drama Bik Eneich: Un Fils. Other films vying for the Arab prize include Samir’s Baghdad in my Shadow, which is set in London, Joud Saeed’s Syrian tale Between Brothers, Mohanad Hayal’s Haifa Street, Marwa Zein's football drama Khartoum Offside, Seif Abdalla’s story of Sudanese refugees living in Cairo, Noom El Deek, and Sam Tlili’s On The Crossbar, a documentary about the filmmaker’s mother set against the backdrop of the Tunisian football team playing at the World Cup in Argentina in 1978.

In The International Critics’ Week Competition, a film about the work of Syrian director Mohamed Malas, Unlocking Doors of Cinema: Mohamed Malas will be given its world premiere. The director of the UAE-Lebanese co-production is Nezar Andary, an associate professor at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for Ciff, which for a long time struggled to justify its status as the only film festival in the Mena region to be granted “category A” status by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations. The competitive film festival status is held by only 15 film festivals throughout the world, including those located in Berlin, Cannes and Venice.

Ciff was launched in 1976, during the Egyptian film industry’s golden age. It experienced hard times and a lack of investment in the years before the economic and political turmoil that came about after the Arab uprisings. The festival did not run between 2011 and 2013, but under the stewardship of Hefzy, it is standing tall once again.

The Cairo International Film Festival starts tomorrow and will run until Friday, November 29. More information is at ccif.org.eg

Updated: November 19, 2019 08:33 AM

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