Ten days in the city: a story only Cairo knows

It’s impossible to know how much of what I’ve heard is the truth. The information I’ve received is conflicting. Each storyteller has a vested interest in their narrative. Or, they are frightened of the consequences if they give their full version of the story. What I do know is a tale about Egypt that involves a film festival, now thirty-eight years old.

On the day this year that the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) officially opened, 15 November, there was no printed catalogue or program schedule. Aside from a handful of official press releases on the festival’s website, and for the mention of various strands and focusses – Chinese Cinema, New Egyptian Cinema, participation in the global focus on Shakespeare and Cinema to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – I had arrived in Cairo with no information on what I might see over the next ten days. I had, however, already seen and heard about a film that was pulled from the festival’s line-up: Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City.

Initial whispers and online articles said something about the festival changing its mind on this film, because it had participated in too many other festivals ahead of its screening in Cairo. The battle, the Egyptian press reported, was between Festival Director, Dr Magda Wassef, and filmmaker El Said. To get a balanced view of the situation I contacted the festival’s Director and Artistic Director, and the filmmaker. The filmmaker replied.

El Said told me:

I premiered my film in Berlinale last February and this is where the Artistic Director of (the) Cairo Film Festival saw it. The film was invited to many festivals, and, you know, during Berlinale we received many invitations, including some invitations from Arab and regional film festivals that come from the Mena region. But, for us, we were hoping to play the film in Cairo; mainly because it is a film that is trying to express Cairo as a city and, for us, we felt like it’s the best thing, that the film is playing in a festival that carries the name of this city that we are trying to express. The festival contacted me in August, and they were asking me two questions: Did I play the film in any main competition of the festivals of FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers Associations)? And I said no, because it was in the Berlinale, in the Forum, and it didn’t go to any of the other fourteen festivals in FIAPF. And the other question was: Do I have any commitment – do I confirm any commitment – regionally? In the Mena region. And no, I have many invitations but I didn’t confirm any of them. So, they said that they are ready to invite the film to the competition, in (the) case (that) I guarantee the Mena premiere, and this is what I did. We discussed it, I said ‘Okay, I’m going to quit all these (other) invitations now’, and this is the only thing that we spoke about. When they invited the film, it was already played in nineteen festivals and got three awards and that was something that, in the conversation with Cairo Film Festival, that they were so happy about it; they were congratulating me about the success of the film. I even thought that this is one of the reasons why they chose the film. So, nobody talked to me about the participation of the film in international festivals at all. Whether it’s big or small, where: no, they were just celebrating these things.

FIAPF, which El Said refers to, was established in 1933. One of their major remits is the regulation of competitions at accredited international film festivals, of which there are fifteen. The rules stipulate that a film may only screen in the official competition of one of these fifteen festivals. That means that it can still show at those festivals, just not in the official competition.

Then there are the festival’s own regulations, which are clearly stated in both the catalogue that I eventually received and online. They have no official rules that suggest grounds for refusing to screen the film. The regulations actually state to contrary, that, ‘Once a film has been selected and the producer has confirmed, it cannot be withdrawn from the festival’. This leads me to believe that the festival changed its mind.

In searching for an official comment from the festival online, I came across Ahram Online, which quoted a local television program, Hona Al-3asema, from the week before I arrived. The program had invited both El Said and Dr Wassef to comment. Dr Wassef is quoted as saying, ‘We made a mistake in the beginning by accepting it in the competition section. The film is distinctive and has a place in the festival, but outside of the competition’. But In the Last Days of the City was not screened outside of the competition at CIFF, either. El Said says he was not offered any screening in any other section of the festival, despite being eligible for three strands – Official Selection: Out of Competition, Festival of Festivals, and New Egyptian Cinema 2015-2016.

Stranger still, to my mind, was that several people I spoke to mentioned seeing a press release that explained everything. Having looked at the festival’s press page and failing to find such a release in English, and having never received a single press release personally from the festival in soft or hard copy, I can only presume that it exists somewhere in Egyptian Arabic, possibly French.

Accepting, finally, that finding commentary on the record to support whispers from the breakfast buffet was a fool’s errand, I considered the film’s content. I had, after all, seen the film with my own eyes in February at the Berlinale. From my perspective, the content is not at all controversial: the film is about four friends living in different cities trying to make sense of their lives. Universal themes of love, loss and melancholy for the ever-changing places they live consume the narrative. But, as I was reminded by a fellow critic, there is one comment that criticises the Egyptian Army in the film. It’s not difficult to imagine that, in a country governed by military, and with potential for political dissent around every corner, censorship in the arts is possible. There were no fewer than four security checkpoints between the outer gates and the front doors of the Cairo Opera House for the festival’s Opening Night Ceremony, and every minute of my experience in the city, outside of my hotel room, was chaperoned. I’m not saying these were paranoid provisions. I don’t doubt that they ensured my safety, and yet I do think this goes some way in explaining just how volatile the situation between government and dissent is, at least, perceived to be.

I asked El Said if there was anything he could think of that could have contributed to the decision – political associations, perhaps? He is, after all, a founder of the city’s alternative film centre, the Cairo Cinematheque. A cinephile community space, with 8mm and 16mm lab equipment, a screening room, a library of DVDs and other digital formats, as well as home to German filmmaker Harun Farocki’s Steinbeck, the Cinematheque represents the artistic freedom that the festival stifles. Though I wanted very much to visit the downtown site, I was discouraged by our chaperones due to El Said’s involvement. He had spoken out against the festival, I was told, and there probably wouldn’t be time to visit. Still, El Said was reticent to tell me what he thought the reason for refusing his film from the festival might have been:

I don’t know, this thing about if it’s controversial or not. This is a very relative thing; maybe from your point of view it’s not controversial, but maybe from another point of view, maybe it is, I don’t know. I can’t really speculate, or I can’t say why because I don’t want to accuse people without having evidence. For me, we have a very clear case here: where there is a film that was selected and announced, this film stayed very loyal to all the commitment and the agreement and the deal that was done with the festival, and all of a sudden this festival decided to take it out – not only from this section but take it out from the whole program and refuse … the chance to change this position, and lie to the public, and say that this is because of the filmmakers when they know that this is not because of the filmmakers. So, for me, what is raising doubts … (is) their incapability of presenting any logical argument that is convincing to anyone.

Maybe El Said genuinely is baffled by the festival’s decision, or maybe he’s too scared to tell me that the state has some sort of control over the festival’s programming. I wonder if he’s concerned about how I’ll portray the situation or his role within it; when I’m safely back in the UK writing up this report he’ll still be living in Cairo, after all. I’ll probably never know for sure, but I do know that whoever does have control over the programming needs to be replaced, or shaken up at the very least. For an international film festival to have sixteen titles in official competition and for less than a third of them to be anywhere near competent, worthy works of social, historical, political or cultural entertainment, or aesthetic art, suggests something is severely wrong.

Though I’m used to a lack of equity in the sector, I still hope for a fair representation of gender, ethnicity and international perspectives in these selections – understanding humanity through art is one of my major motivators in pursuing a career as a film critic.  And while there was a range in the festival’s representation, I was struck, and I think, dumbfounded, by the rampant sexism. I lost count of how many times women were referred to as sluts and whores, (though I recall it strongly from Dobra žena, [A Good Wife] Perfetti sconoscuiti, [Perfect Strangers] and Câini [Dogs]) and I was dismayed to see that the visual reveal of rape is still operating as a mainstream money-shot, (Voir du pays [The Stopover]) and that homosexuality and mental illness are still played for laughs and character humiliation (Perfect Strangers, and Polarpoiss [The Polar Boy]).

Frankly, the line-up of films at CIFF was not only artistically poor, (Czech film Nikdy nejsme sami [We Are Never Alone] used contrasting colour segments with black and white to no purpose, while Egyptian Al Bar Al Tany [The Other Land] showcased the most amateurish gold tinted flashback and fantasy scenes that I’ve ever seen in a competition feature film) but was altogether premised on appalling ideology. It’s worth noting that the ideological examples I found most tiresome and wretched were often met with raucous laughter from the peanut gallery. I tried, where possible, to read the films individually as commentaries on oppression, (Someone To Talk To does nothing if not make us think about how horrendous life still is for many women wanting freedom from the institution and oppression of marriage) and also collectively, as a commentary on the frightening condition of masculinity (concluding it’s no longer in crisis; it’s rampant, and destructive to all). However I wholeheartedly failed to come up with more than four titles in the CIFF selection that I’d recommend as even watchable. The bearable included Nino Basilia’s FIPRESCI award-winning Georgian allegory, Anna’s Life, Karim Traidia’s condemnation of Algeria’s stolen independence, Chronicles of My Village, Hungarian fantasy thriller Tiszta Szívvel (Kills on Wheels) and Oliver Laxe’s metaphysical journey with occasional odd comedy, Mimosas.

Even so, the overall quality of the films selected simply does not stand up to the perceived quality of an international, FIAPF-accredited film festival. Perhaps it is because the festival happens so late in the circuit and only the dregs of the year’s productions are available? Or perhaps it is because the selectors think that jokes about domestic violence (as featured in opening night dramedy, Youm Lel Setat [A Day for Women]) equal good old-fashioned big screen entertainment.

Programming aside, the festival also suffered from what the entire country is struggling to come to terms with: phantom reception. From the formerly full-time tour guide who took us to the Giza pyramids, who works just a couple of days a month since the revolution (or coup, depending on your position) to the recently re-opened downtown cinemas used as festival venues that played to all of five men plus myself and my chaperone, it was clear that there is a problem attracting international audiences to CIFF due to the changed state of play concerning safety and stability. Since 2011, the festival has struggled with major security concerns, resulting in having been cancelled twice during the Arab Spring. Another contributing factor is that the ticket price increased this year from 5 EG Pounds to 20, just after the Egyptian Government decided to float the currency, which caused financial chaos for many.

What I found most strange in this cloud of negativity, though, is that the festival has an image of standing up for polemic and bravery in the arts, locally at least. Screening outside of the official competition was Egypt’s official entry for next year’s Academy Awards, Clash –filmmaking of perceived bravery. The film is set in a police detainee truck on a day of protests against former president Mohamed Morsi. It begins with an Egyptian-American journalist being wrongfully arrested, and escalates, as both members of the Muslim Brotherhood and people protesting for the revolution find themselves contained together in a very small, overheated space. What’s curious, though, is that Clash, despite its seemingly politically-charged content, is quite conservative. It doesn’t pass harsh judgement on the police force, the Muslim Brotherhood or anyone else in the film. Instead, it plays it safe and makes incompetence and confusion out to be the bad guy.

El Said, whose film will have screened in sixty different film festivals internationally by June next year, and who is yet to screen anywhere in the Mena region, doesn’t even comment on his film’s eligibility for entry into the Oscars. But he is desperate to see it shown in Cairo, even if that is after and outside of the film festival. The only option he has is to submit the film to the advisory board: ‘The censorship is looking at it now and I’m waiting for them to give me their decision’, he told me. I wonder if he will show it illegally at the Cinematheque, a space for making and showing films that the world needs, but I don’t ask because he is resigned to waiting, and because I don’t think he would tell me even if he plans to.

Whatever the truth, we can be certain that El Said is determined, because there is something that Cairo knows that the audiences at all sixty of those festivals do not: ‘This is the moment that I was waiting for since very long time, because, you know, it’s very different when you screen the film in the context of the city that the film is trying to express. It’s really completely different; the film has many layers that will be received very differently here than being received in any other part of the world’. Perhaps this is what the festival was most afraid of.


Image: In the Last Days of the City / Still Moving

Tara Judah

Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic, programming and content assistant at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Tara's writing can be found at tarajudah.com and she tweets as @midnightmovies.

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