CAIRO: “This film festival really was, for a time, really important ... It’s inspiring to try to find that again and transform it into something for the future,” Mohamed Hefzy pauses to clear his throat, “a more modern festival.
“That’s what I feel the problem was. [CIFF] ran the old way. It was just about finding the best films available and showing them. Today, festivals do a lot more than that.”
Hefzy is a scriptwriter and film producer whose Film Clinic production house has helped propel a new generation of aspiring filmmakers to the Egyptian, regional and world stage.
He takes the helm of the Cairo International Film Festival as the MENA region’s oldest cinema event celebrates its 40th anniversary, and as Egypt and the region are in the midst of nearly a decade of economic and political anxiety.
When the soft-spoken festival director sat down with The Daily Star one morning during CIFF’s first week to discuss opportunities and challenges, he was already on the verge of losing his voice.
“I’ve really been trying to change three main things,” he begins.
“Firstly, the programing approach, trying to be more aggressive, going out to track films and make deals, [to] get the best films, even before they’re shown at any festival, to compete for ... Middle East premieres at least. We’ve also been working with programmers from different regions ... to diversify the programing a little, and added a genre sidebar and gone into the small VR cinema section.
“[Secondly] we’re trying to communicate a little better, [in order] to change the branding of the festival a little. That’s important because how you market the festival is sometimes the only way to attract sponsors and therefore have the means to do what you want.”
In the decades since it was founded, CIFF failed to run only twice (in 2011 and 2013). It’s is tricky business, renovating an institution that’s been in place 40 years.
With continuity comes experience and institutional memory but for a director wanting to retool the festival for the needs of contemporary Egyptian cinema it can also be a source of inertia.
“I’ve inherited a team of more than 35 people,” he says.
“They’re very experienced, but experienced in doing things a certain way ... I had to bring in people who do things in a different way or who are able to learn something new, while at the same time try to make [both groups] work as a team.
“Aside from fundraising, which is always challenging, my main challenge has been trying to create a synergy between the old team and the new team, to have a real exchange of knowledge.”
That challenge has unfolded a bit “like a tragicomedy,” Hefzy chuckles, but he takes the long view.
“For me,” he says, “it’s always been something I knew would take two to three years to get right.”
CIFF’s new director has devoted a great deal of energy to renovating the festival’s industry side, to create “an industry component that’s really significant. We’ve worked hard to do that. There’s a great program of industry events in the second half of the festival.”
Historically, Egypt’s domestic film industry its producers, distributors, buyers, exhibitors and broadcasters and their counterparts on the international and regional scene don’t seem to have had much to do with each other.
The first shift came with the creation of the Cairo Film Connection co-production market, modeled on the prototype created for the erstwhile Dubai film festival.
“People keep asking me, ‘Why don’t you start a film market?’” Hefzy muses. “I think it’s a myth that you can just ‘start a film market.’ Dubai’s film market was good in some aspects but the idea of a market where people buy and sell films in this region ... I don’t think it worked in that sense.
“If you consider Dubai Film Connection and [the panels and master classes] as part of the market, then yes, it becomes significant.
“So we chose to focus on that not the film market aspects ... This is the fifth Cairo Film Connection. It’s not new but it’s much bigger, [in terms] of the number of submissions received (almost three times more than last time, two years ago).
“The number of experts and invited guests is higher, as is the quality of the projects.”
Not surprisingly, financing is a major challenge in developing CIFF’s industry component.
“We’ve managed to secure prize monies worth close $150,000,” he says. “Many people don’t really understand the concept of the Film Connection. The media is more focused on the films, the opening ceremony and the stars.
“The first question I get in almost every interview is ‘What Hollywood stars have you got coming?’
“It’s a very uninspiring way to begin a discussion,” he laughs.
“For me ... the most important aspect of what we’re trying to do [is] to have the festival play the role of enabler rather than just a showcase for films ... helping drive the careers of filmmakers and helping the local industry grow.”
Seven years after Egypt’s revolution, Hefzy notes that CIFF’s principal competitors in the region are no longer the Gulf film festivals in Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai but the one on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, El-Gouna film festival, which just ran its second edition. That said, the Egyptian film industry is in an ambiguous state of repair.
“Egyptian films and foreign films seem to be doing well in box office terms. Partly that has to do with inflation ticket prices going up so the total number seems good but admissions haven’t gone up all that much. Egyptian films still have a healthy share of the market, about 50 percent.
“It’s not a bad situation but I think the lack of state support and Culture Ministry funding for independent filmmakers is making it difficult to produce more quality films.
“There are a few blockbusters that make a million admissions plus every year, but there’s still very few quality films that travel, that have some cultural impact.”
The country’s younger filmmakers, he says, are doing things on their own.
“You’re never going to produce consistent quality work at a good enough scale without a support system. That doesn’t just mean investing in production, but also raising peoples’ skills and bringing them into contact with experienced mentors who can help them develop.”
He says there are some hopeful signs in a Culture Ministry initiative to set up a holding company, meant to be operational by next year, which will operate theaters and create a film fund.
“The ministry ... now has access to significant assets in terms of cinemas, labs, and film negatives,” Hefzy says. “The holding company will manage them, plus invest in new assets and productions. There should be a fund for film development, production and distribution, and I hope for co-productions. We need a co-production fund.”
The Cairo International Film Festival runs through Nov. 29. See ciff.org.eg.