Cairo Festival Director Amir Ramses on Competing With Rival Arab Fests

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Egyptian filmmaker Amir Ramses is no stranger to the Cairo Intl. Film Festival. The director’s feature debut, “End of the World,” bowed at the prestigious Arab fest in 2005, and he returned 15 years later with “The Curfew,” bookending a chapter of his career in which the prolific filmmaker garnered worldwide acclaim.

But for the Cairo-born Ramses, who was appointed festival director earlier this year, the homecoming is a return to his roots in more ways than one. It was at the long-running festival that Ramses “was introduced to the many worlds of cinema,” and accepting the position of festival chief “was a way to give back and pay my respect to an institution that made me the filmmaker I am today,” the director told Variety.

It’s a transition year for the Cairo Film Festival, which runs from Nov. 13 – 22. Ramses was appointed just weeks after Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy stepped down as festival president, after a four-year tenure in which he helped to revamp the leading Arab event, while incoming industry head Reem Allam will take the reins of the Cairo Industry Days platform.

Ramses served as artistic director of Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival from 2017 to 2021, a period in which he helped land the glitzy Red Sea resort on the world cinema map. “The reason why I was brought to Cairo in the first place is because I came from Gouna, and I managed to get the kind of lineup that we brought to Gouna from the first edition. Managing to start a festival where you have in your competition the Golden Palm from Cannes, winners from Locarno, from Karlovy Vary,” he said.

“That was my first target, to be able to prove that this experience is repeatable. My main concern was recreating my Gouna experience as an artistic director, recreating the ability to make Cairo as important in its film lineup as it is in its industry section.”

Ramses’ feature “The Curfew” premiered at the Cairo Intl. Film Festival in 2020.
Courtesy of Red Star Films

It was Hefzy who launched Cairo Industry Days five years ago, quickly building it into one of the leading industry events in the Arab film world. Yet despite its success, Ramses still saw an opportunity this year to give the platform an “upgrade.”

“It has been doing great, it has been taking great steps. But after five years, if you don’t change, you’re getting smaller,” he said. “I wanted to build on the success that happened in years before and take things a step further.”

One notable change has been to the festival’s program of workshops and masterclasses, which this year will focus on greater engagement with the Egyptian film industry. “When you do a masterclass, usually it’s open for the public, media, cinephiles,” said Ramses. “That makes amazing masterclasses, but the fact that they’re open to a general audience makes them a bit generic. You have to be on the level of each and every one of the audience.” This year the festival wanted to take “the next step,” he said, by offering practical tools for Egyptian filmmakers.

To that end, Cairo is hosting a 10-day workshop led by iconic director Béla Tarr in which he will offer one-on-one mentoring to young filmmakers, who will use the course to develop and shoot a scene based on a theme proposed by the Hungarian screen legend. “That kind of interaction between Béla Tarr and Egyptian filmmakers on a professional level, and not just in a masterclass: This is the kind of experience I wanted to bring to the industry section,” said Ramses. “Creating extended workshops with big names from the industry.”

The Cairo Film Festival hosts its 44th edition amid a crowded fall calendar of Arab fests, running parallel to Marrakech (Nov. 11 – 19) and ahead of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival, which takes place Dec. 1 – 10. El Gouna, which previously occupied a late-October slot, cancelled its 2022 edition. Its future is uncertain.

Ramses nevertheless sees the region’s leading events less as rivals than collaborators, working toward a common goal of nurturing and growing the Arab film industry. “We’re talking on a weekly basis about where we are, how we can support each other,” he said. “It’s not about taking the lead. You can’t build the region on one strong festival. We complement each other.”

Jockeying for regional premieres goes hand in hand with each festival’s efforts to attract both local audiences and Hollywood stars — Cairo, for its part, landed the Middle East premiere of Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” for its opening night, though the director won’t be in attendance — but Ramses said he’d like to see greater collaboration on the industry side.

“I think bigger cooperation is needed on the level of the funding platforms,” he said. “This is the part where it gets really competitive. The whole idea that if your film…is at [Marrakech’s Atlas Workshops], it’s not going to [Cairo Film Connection]. This is something that really needs to change.

“Films in the region need this collaboration. I don’t think that these platforms were built just to get the premiere of a film. I’m not helping a film with my platform just to push it to have its premiere at my festival,” he continued. “Let’s help the filmmaker finish his film and then see. If he wants to come to Cairo, Cairo is welcoming. If he wants to go to another festival, that’s his call. Maybe a little coordination at the level of the industry development platform could help the filmmakers from the region.”

Maryam Touzani’s “The Blue Caftan” won the FIPRESCI prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The veteran director is nevertheless bullish on the current state of Arab cinema, after a year in which Moroccan director-writer Maryam Touzani won the FIPRESCI prize in Cannes for “The Blue Caftan,” Sally El Hosaini’s “The Swimmers” opened the Toronto Film Festival, and six features from first- and second-time Arab directors premiered in the official sections at Venice.

“On so many levels, the last few years, the scene has totally changed,” Ramses said, comparing it to an era in which Arab filmmakers of his generation competed for scant resources and often had to curry the favor of a select few industry gatekeepers. International co-productions, he stressed, “are not so much of a locked door anymore.”

“Independent filmmakers are managing to go to the platforms on their own, to get development funds for their films, to meet producers,” he said. “I think the fact that the concept of creating a film that will get international acclaim, pushing it through development platforms, industry meetings, and even pitching it to international distributors and producers — it’s no longer a secret game anymore. Almost everyone knows how to do it, and talented filmmakers now are much luckier at having the means to get to the other side of the Mediterranean” — that is, to crack the all-important European market.

“The system has changed. It became more open,” he added. “And Arab festivals have been a part of that.”

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