Tamer El Said and the role of the Cairo International Film Festival

The dispute between filmmaker Tamer El Said and the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), triggered by the CIFF deciding not to screen Said’s debut film The Last Days of the City last month, has neither died out nor resolved itself. Instead, the ongoing conflict has raised questions around generational tensions within the film industry, the state’s attitude toward non-commercial cinema and a lack of transparency in how state-affiliated festivals operate.

On November 1, Lamis al-Hadidy invited the 44-year-old Said onto her popular CBC program Hona al-Asema(Here’s the Capital) to discuss his dismay at the decision and present a petition signed by over 270 arts figures to reintroduce the film into the CIFF competition. Hadidy, who urged the CIFF’s management to reconsider, arranged phone-ins from CIFF President Magda Wassef, Ilham Shahin (the star and producer of Kamla Abu Zikry’s A Day for Women, the CIFF’s opening feature and also a film in competition) and Abu Zikry.

CIFF’s management says they initially invited Said to screen the film outside of competition, but he persuaded them to allow it to compete, as announced on September 7. For the CIFF, which acts under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, the film then screened at too many international film festivals, a sign that its makers failed to pay due respect to their country’s festival.

But Said says the film was never invited to screen outside of competition, that it had already been to 19 festivals when the CIFF put it in the competition, and that both parties agreed it would be the film’s Middle East and North Africa premier. Said promised not to accept new festival invitations, but says he made it clear that he would not pull out of those already committed to. The CIFF never asked how many festivals the film had shown in, according to Said, who says he was not aware that there was a cap.

On Hadidy’s program, 55-year-old Shahin, a veteran actor (One-Nil) and vocal supporter of the state, said Egyptian filmmakers have a duty to support CIFF, and that she rejected several festival invitations to respect her agreement with it.

Although she is also a part of the commercial film and TV industry, 50-year-old Abo Zikry (One-Nil, Zaat) was more sympathetic. She signed the petition, which was initiated by director Hala Lotfy (Coming Forth By Day), and told Hadidy that, though she was dismayed at having to give up festival screenings for her film while Said’s continued to tour, she did not wish for it to be removed from competition.

She pointed out that her film features big stars and has a good chance of local and regional cinema distribution, while the nature of Said’s film — it is slow-paced, self-reflective and has no specific narrative arc — would make it harder for it to achieve success in commercial cinemas. To be shown at the CIFF might prove helpful in enabling its local release, she contended.

During a CIFF press conference on October 27, several journalists inquired about The Last Days of the City’s removal from competition, specifically asking about the regulations that justified the decision and why the film had been not offered another screening slot. Wassef, 70, replied that, while A Day for Women had only been shown at the BFI London Film Festival and rejected other festival invitations – such as Montpellier’s festival – at the CIFF’s request, Said’s film had screened at numerous festivals. She argued that a different set of internal rules apply to Egyptian films as opposed to international films, but the CIFF president did not specify what these rules were, when they were set or by whom.

“This year, some films could have gone to Dubai, Carthage and so on, but they chose Cairo,” Wassef told Mada Masr after the conference. “They respected the festival. What happened with this film is that it continued to say, ‘This is the regional premier.’ No, we are an international festival, Tamer. We are not a regional festival. With foreign films, it might not matter so much, but when it’s an Egyptian film that’s touring, when it comes to its release here, it’s overexposed.”

Said’s statements and the petition maintain that none of CIFF’s regulations was broken, nor had the film competed in any festival belonging to the International Federation of Film Producers Associations, of which Cairo and 14 other festivals are part. This would also have been The Last Days of the City’s Egyptian premier.

Joseph Fahim, a 34-year-old film critic who programed CIFF’s 36th edition in 2014 under the leadership of former festival President Samir Farid, says any festival reserves the right to follow its own internal policies regarding the films it selects — even if these policies are not officially disclosed. “But everybody knows the rules,” says Fahim, who, no longer affiliated with CIFF, is now a member of Berlin Critics’ Week and the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival’s Middle East representative. “The problem with CIFF is there is no transparency and everything is wishy-washy.”

Fahim says that during the year he ran the programing — which was also a year CIFF employed a younger team than they usually do, collaborated with festivals in other countries and released information on its spending and decisions — there was a policy that Egyptian films in competition had to be world premiers, and films from outside of Egypt had to be regional premiers. For Egyptian films that they wanted to screen in the official selection but out of competition, such as Ahmed Abdallah’s Décor, they held gala screenings in the Cairo Opera House’s main hall.

“There is such a thing as a film being overexposed, but you make the decision yourself, a long period before, and you make that decision before accepting the film,” Fahim says. “They could have also offered Said a slot outside the competition.”

Filmmakers supported this idea in discussions on social media. Filmmaker Amir Ramses, 37, wrote that he was sympathetic to Said’s plight but dismayed that he had been asked to stay silent regarding his position – he doesn’t find CIFF’s decision to remove the film completely out of line — by some filmmakers and members of Said’s film crew. Ramses,  who’s on the jury for CIFF’s co-production platform Cairo Film Connection, explained why he understood CIFF’s position while urging it to screen the film out of competition. Filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah, 64, who signed Lotfy’s petition, agreed, maintaining that the problem lies in the inconsistency.

Indeed, on Hadidy’s show Wassef said, “Perhaps we made a mistake in the beginning to accept the film in the international competition. The film had a place in CIFF but outside of the competition.” In response, Said asked why he was paying for the CIFF’s mistake, saying that he had refused several invitations in the region and so lost the chance to have a local premier.

Most commentators agree that the film’s selection and subsequent removal has not only negatively impacted the film but also tarnished CIFF’s already dented reputation. For years, Egyptian filmmakers have complained that the CIFF has not made enough effort to include their work and has mismanaged its budget, while audiences and the press have pointed to a lack of information on screenings, poor audience management and insufficient marketing.

These were the issues – which also plague many other state-run festivals – that Farid’s team tried to tackle for the 36th CIFF, but they were not invited back by the ministry the following year, with some speculating that actor Khaled Abol Naga’s criticisms of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during the press conference in 2014 may have been the reason. The culture minister announced that a fact-finding committee would investigate Farid and his team’s finances, and although no wrongdoing was found, Farid was forced to resign.

Beyond Said’s film, what is at stake is CIFF’s role in supporting Egypt’s film industry. Its Cairo Film Connection platform does offer limited support to films in production, but there is no distribution or competition support. The fact that CIFF is a festival where it is not uncommon to find empty screening halls – except for Egyptian films, which are usually oversubscribed to – suggests that the organizers need to reconsider the different standards they apply for the number of festivals Egyptian and foreign films are allowed to have participated in, especially as CIFF comes at the very end of the festival year, in November.

The criteria according to which films are placed in competition or screened in the official selection remain unclear. This year’s competition includes 16 films, the majority of which have screened in numerous festivals, won prizes and, in some cases, have seen commercial releases abroad. Some of the films have already been screened in the region, such as Morocco’s award-winning Memosa, which was released commercially in Beirut and has participated in over 20 festivals. Italian director Paolo Genovese’s Perfect Strangers has already been commercially released in Italy and taken part in a number of festivals but is also included in competition.

Fahim argues that Egyptian filmmakers choose to screen their films at the Cairo festival for sentimental reasons, but that the screening doesn’t mean much in practical terms. “Many Egyptians opt to show their films in Dubai, since there are more premiers, attracting more critics. There’s better exposure, a better market, more opportunities,” he says, adding that the films participating in CIFF benefit the festival rather than the other way round.

While successful international productions which have toured worldwide are accepted at CIFF, Egyptian films — which in many cases are made under more difficult economic, political and artistic conditions, as independent filmmakers face legal obstacles to work — face an extra hurdle in being able to compete. Even if the festival reserves the right to decide its own rules, it would benefit everyone if it made them public or at least consistent year after year. Its reputation would also improve if it prioritized helping local filmmakers show their films in Cairo and offered support to enter international markets.

Some Egyptian feature films have toured the world but have never been screened in Egypt — such as Hala Lotfy’s Coming Forth by Day (2012) and most documentaries — because a handful of powerful producers have a monopoly on almost all local cinemas. When small films do make it to commercial release, they are generally unable to compete because they cannot afford the massive advertising campaigns of other commercial releases. This was the case with Nadine Khan’s Harag w Marag and Ahmad Abdalla’s Rags and Tatters. International festivals can thus become the only gateway for non-commercial filmmakers to gain recognition and make money.

Zawya, whose distribution arm is also Said’s local distributor, is trying to build an audience for independent cinema by releasing films for one-off screenings or whole weeks at their theaters in downtown Cairo and three other cities. If it wants to compete as an international-standard festival, CIFF should also aim to play a role in supporting local industry.

But it seems that CIFF will not be changing its tune in the current controversy. In its first press release on the topic on October 25, the festival said that its artistic director, 74-year-old film critic Youssef Sherif Rizkallah, admired the film’s high quality and “wishes all the best to the director and his team for the future of the movie and others to come.” In response to the petition and online campaign, however, CIFF published a press release on November 5 accusing the team behind In the Last Days of the City of “trying to tarnish the reputation of the festival in Egypt and around the world by spreading lies and false insinuations.”

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist

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