Cairo Film Festival Kicks Off With New Leadership Team at Helm

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The Cairo Intl. Film Festival kicks off Nov. 13 with the Middle East premiere of Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” and a new-look leadership team bringing fresh energy to the grande dame of Arab cinema.

This year’s event marks the first as festival director for Egyptian filmmaker Amir Ramses, who was appointed earlier this year, as well as industry head Reem Allam.

Ramses was tapped just weeks after Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy stepped down as festival president, after a four-year tenure in which he helped to revamp the long-running event.

Hefzy was particularly instrumental in expanding the fest’s international reach, bolstering ties with counterparts overseas, and launching an industry component that has quickly established itself as one of the leading platforms for filmmakers from the region.  

The festival’s 44th edition, which runs until Nov. 22, unspools amid a crowded fall calendar of Arab fests, running parallel to Marrakech (Nov. 11 – 19) and on the eve of Saudi Arabia’s splashy Red Sea Film Festival, which hosts its second edition in Jeddah from Dec. 1 – 10.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival, which for five years had occupied a late-October slot and brought a touch of star power to the Red Sea resort town, was put on pause this year. Its future is uncertain.

Speaking to Variety on the eve of opening night, Ramses — who was the artistic director in El Gouna from 2017-2021 — described a spirit of healthy competition among the region’s festivals, who he sees less as rivals than collaborators working toward a common goal of bolstering Arab cinema.

“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.”

In his first year in Cairo, Ramses has nevertheless been keen to secure the kind of lineup that helped land El Gouna on the map. Along with the regional premiere of “The Fabelmans,” he’s helped attract a strong slate of titles already making waves on the international festival circuit.

Among the films celebrating regional premieres in Cairo are Carla Simón’s Berlin Golden Bear Winner “Alcarràs”; Alice Diop’s Venice Grand Jury Prize and Lion of the Future award winner “Saint Omer”; Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “Utama”; Sally El Hosaini’s Toronto opening film “The Swimmers”; and a host of award winners from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, including Lukas Dhont’s Grand Prix winner “Close,” Jerzy Skolimowski’s Jury Prize-winning “EO” and Riley Keough and Gina Gammell Camera d’Or winner “War Pony.”

At the same time, the longest continually running showcase of Arab cinema will look to shine a spotlight on the region’s emerging and established talents. In the international competition, Egyptian director Ahmad Abdalla’s “19B,” which celebrates its world premiere, will screen among 14 titles vying for the festival’s Golden Pyramid, including Lebanese director Ali Cherri’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight player “The Dam.”

Ahmad Abdalla’s “19B” has its world premiere in the festival’s international competition.
Courtesy of the Cairo Film Festival

The festival’s Horizons of Arab Cinema competition, meanwhile, opens with the world premiere of Egyptian filmmaker Sherief Elkatsha’s documentary “Far From the Nile.” Other standouts include the world premiere of “The Family,” by Algerian director Merzak Allouache, who was named Variety’s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year in 2013, and the Middle East premiere of Mounia Meddour’s “Houria,” which arrives in Cairo after bowing at the Rome Film Festival.

It’s been a banner year for Arab cinema, with Moroccan director-writer Maryam Touzani winning the FIPRESCI prize in Cannes for “The Blue Caftan,” Sally El Hosaini’s “The Swimmers” opening the Toronto Film Festival, and no fewer than six features from first- and second-time Arab directors in the official sections at Venice.

Cairo programming director Andrew Mohsen said that’s no coincidence, thanks not only to the “long effort” made by other filmmakers from the region and the increasingly diverse programming teams bringing down barriers at A-class festivals, but to the work of Arab fests like Cairo, which “plays an important role either by supporting financially…some of these projects, or by screening some of these films for the first time.” For many Arab filmmakers, he added, “now is the time.”

The fifth Cairo Industry Days, which takes place Nov. 17 – 22, will present a wide-ranging program of masterclasses, conversations, workshops and panel discussions featuring award-winning filmmakers and industry experts from around the world.  

The Cairo Film Connection co-production market will showcase 15 projects from 10 countries across North Africa and the Middle East, including five from the host country. Awards will be handed out Nov. 20 by a jury composed of Berlin International Film Festival managing director Mariette Rissenbeek, Egyptian filmmaker and curator Viola Shafik, and Tunisian director Raja Amari.

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