At Egypt's film festival, a comedy of errors
When this much goes wrong with the organization, no one bothers to critique the movies.
Theatergoers in Cairo know that published curtain times are merely suggestions. If an ad says a film will begin at 9 P.M., one can even finish a late dinner before the movie begins at 10 P.M., or even later. But one might predict that similar delays would not take place at the Cairo International Film Festival, particularly at the festival's 30th anniversary. Those who feared otherwise might have been consoled by Festival President Ezzat Abo Auf's guarantees of meticulous planning and superb implementation.
Their hopes were dashed. To judge by scathing Egyptian criticism, one might think festival organization is more important than the films themselves. In an article entitled "The Mistakes that Killed the Festival," Tareq Morsi, of the magazine Rose al-Youssef, outlines these same "embarrassing gaffes." The most significant error was the absence of a professional catalog to provide precise and reliable information regarding not only the films, but the content and people involved, or at the very least, screening schedules and locations.
"This is the only festival in the world whose opening date is determined by the moon. Every year, it takes place during a different month," quips major Egyptian film critic Mustafa Darwish. Darwish notes that the editing of the festival catalog began only five days before the beginning of the festival and that the only picture on the festival's Internet site was that of actor Ezzat Abo Auf, the same festival president who promised everything would go as planned.
Abo Auf was actually quite happy half a year ago when Culture Minister Farouq Hosni named him festival president. Abo Auf is the third president in as many years, and has no practical experience in mounting festivals. But one might expect that during his three months in the position, "the most significant innovation would not be limited to replacing the miniature pyramid awarded for first prize with a key - something everyone ridiculed," says Darwish.
Critic Samir Farid slammed another aspect of the festival. This is the first time it enjoyed hefty endowments: about 5 million Egyptian pounds ($700,000) from the Culture Ministry and another generous donation of close to $800,000 from telecommunications mogul and festival sponsor Naguib Sawiris. Sawiris is the son of Onsi Sawiris, who purchased 19 percent of Hutchison Telecommunications last year. Israel's Partner Communications is a subsidiary of Hutchison, making Sawiris the indirect owner of an Israeli company.
Despite that, the festival president declared that the festival would "continue to observe its regular policy of boycotting Israeli films." Of course, that is not what bothered the Egyptian critic. "Why didn't they translate the films into Arabic?" he wondered. "Every festival honors the local public by translating films on its behalf. Even the Syrian festival translated its films, and here, nothing."
The matter of translation - not of films, though - gave rise to another ludicrous episode. Danny Glover, a guest of the festival, was invited to address the audience at the Good News movie theater, which hosted the event. But no worthy translator was found. First, panel director and critic Hayria al-Bashlawi took on the mission, but Glover spoke too quickly for her. Then, festival president Abo Auf rose to assist her, but he also had difficulty keeping pace and called his sister to the stage to help out. The three translators chased Glover's words and uttered incomprehensible sentences, producing their own comic performance.
The series of mishaps included festival guest Mohammed al-Ahmed, director general of the Syrian National Film Organization, being told to leave his hotel because festival organizers underestimated the length of his stay. Abo Auf was pressed into action, and the important Syrian guest decided to avoid creating a conflict between the two nations.
The attempt to honor the Lebanese film industry and its stars, following the last war, also failed. None of the festival directors appeared at the ceremony. Egyptian Mistress of Ceremonies Miriam Zaki's lovely words, "We all felt your pain. We are all your brothers," apparently failed to reach Abo Auf. Lebanese actress Julia Kassar, director Bahij Hajeig and Aimee Boulos, president of the Lebanese Cinema Foundation, waited nonplussed for someone to shake their hands.
Festival mishaps continue to make headlines in Egypt and beyond, leaving little room to discuss the content of featured films. But major Egyptian critic Magda Moris decided to take the Egyptian public to task for favoring inferior films. Based on what she said, one might conclude the audience deserves these films.
Now attention turns to the weeklong Dubai International Film Festival, which began Sunday. Despite criticism that the timing of the Dubai festival would prevent Cairo from attracting international stars, no one changed their dates.
Moreover, Dubai promises much more. Panel participants include Terrence Howard, Richard Gere, Oliver Stone, "Desperate Housewives" heartthrob Jesse Metcalfe and a long list of celebrities who will witness the delivery of coveted awards in the emirate.
Money is not lacking here, and anyone who would like to observe the difference between the Cairo and Dubai festivals is invited to visit www.cairofilmfest.org and http://dubaifilmfest.com.