Every September, locusts descend on Egypt in the thousands, drawing attention to an otherwise overlooked creature. Locusts are unique but it’s the huge swarms that give them such an impact and make them symptomatic of the beginning of the fall season. This has inspired the artist collective Medrar for Contemporary Art to take the locust as a symbol for the 5th Cairo Video Festival. Since 2005, the festival has screened hundreds of experimental and low-budget video works from around the world, highlighting a medium that was still unpopular at the time, while cultivating an audience for it.
This week the festival returns in its fifth edition — it was postponed for the past two years because of political developments — and presents 160 films over a span of two weeks.
Here visual artist and Medrar director Mohamed Allam speaks about the vision for this year’s edition of the festival, and what audiences and artists should expect.
Mada Masr: This is the first edition of the festival since 2010. What’s different about it this year?
Mohamed Allam: Well, we’re focusing this time on expanding the festival’s audience base and building people’s interest in experimental filmmaking in general. The Cairo Video Festival is no longer exclusive to showing video art. We want it to become a platform for all those experimenting and engaging with the medium of film.
MM: Why did you decide to broaden the focus this year?
MA: Video artworks have a specific audience. The same can be said for experimental film. Our idea is to narrow the perceived gaps between these genres, artist groups and audiences because in reality they’ve become very close.
We’re seeing more and more cases where visual artists and filmmakers are borrowing techniques and approaches from each another, and producing very exciting works. For instance, we’ve seen artists design and model a sculptural piece in 3D, then use the simulation as the core of a film work rather than exhibiting a physical object in a gallery space. We’re also seeing filmmakers using approaches from video art to produce pseudo-documentaries that are very intriguing.
So we wanted to bring these groups closer. We’re not focusing on one school or style of making video art or film. Instead we hope to broaden perceptions and definitions through the festival, by trying to show all that is experimental in the medium.
MM: Do you feel that the festival’s vision is new?
MA: Of course this sort of thing exists in many places, but less so in Egypt. There have been exhibitions or one-off festivals for experimental film. But I don’t think these initiatives have continued or really succeeded. That’s why we’re interested in taking the initiative.
MM: This proposition seems similar to the 2011 edition of the [Goethe Institute’s] Arab Shorts, which presented curated programs of video art and films. Do you feel there’s an overlap?
MA: Well, yes and no. Arab Shorts was a curated program with themes and it focused on works produced within or in relation to the Arab region. It was not a festival. It’s great that it opened up to different genres in video. But it’s very different. We organize the Cairo Video Festival as an international competition — artists and filmmakers from everywhere around the world and of any age can apply.
MM: Yes, but they were making a somewhat similar proposition about removing these boundaries.
MA: Removing the boundaries is almost inevitable. Production methods and tools, ways of understanding and approaching the medium of film have changed, making the work of visual artists and filmmakers overlap even if it’s unintentional.
You might find someone making fiction films now working in documentary, but with an approach still linked to fictional genres. We also see a lot of people who studied visual arts experimenting with filmmaking because film production has allowed it. In both cases, the results are often very interesting and unique.
So this was the festival’s goal: to receive all these experiments and directions. And of course those who work within the received styles of video art are also presented.
MM: What criteria do you use while screening works for inclusion since there’s no overall theme for the festival?
MA: The artwork must have a minimum level of creativity, where the topic or theme is not overdone, and the style is somewhat distinct. Also the selection was made to present a diverse program, reflecting different trends and approaches to filmmaking and telling us what people experimenting around the world are doing now. All the works are recent productions.
We’ve also put a lot of effort into sending out the open call to all parts of the world, even those generally perceived as having few people experimenting with film. The art scenes there might be different or small, but the idea is to reach them and engage with them. The program includes submissions from across the Arab world and Africa, from the US, Europe, but also China, Singapore, Korea and Nepal — we rarely get to see works from these regions here. So the idea is to balance quality with diversity.
MM: Did you find any trends showing through the submissions?
MA: We received around 800 applications, and I could see that there’s a particular interest and focus on filming in Super 8. I think people are going back to using this type of film. We received many applications filmed in Super 8 as visual narratives on the street. There were also some very interesting works done in animation and in terms of tackling unconventional themes.
MM: How are the films being presented in the festival?
MA: We have two ways of showing films: screenings within a program and exhibitions that show films requiring specific settings, such as looped videos. The screening program changes everyday and includes films that are different in their visions, languages, approaches and techniques. You will watch a film with a storyline, followed by another that’s very abstract, then one shot on Super 8, then another shot in high definition and so on. That’s the way we put together the program. At the same time we’re making sure to screen at least one Egyptian or Arab film each day. The exhibitions, meanwhile, change three times over the duration of the festival, and we also have screenings by selected organizations, as well as presentations by invited artists.
MM: You’ve invited [Egyptian] artist Hala al-Koussy to discuss aspects related to the production of her films. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
MA: Hala was an obvious choice for us because her work reflects the focus of the festival this year. Her films reflect her visual arts background. At the same time she uses some of the techniques of independent filmmakers. Her work is film but also performance and theater, and it has clear references to the history of video art. There’s a very unique and complex process of constructing the film there, which is not common in Egypt or the region. So we felt we needed to see how it’s done, and hopefully this, along with the rest of the program, will broaden our perceptions of experimental film and video art.
The 5th Cairo Video Festival opens on Wednesday September 24 and continues until October 7. For the complete program of events, click here.
Mai Elwakil is co-founder and producer of Medrar TV, an online Arab arts channel that operates under the umbrella of Medrar.