Egypt's rocky history of fact more spectacular than fiction and political and family intrigue often inspires filmmakers. As a tribute to the area's unique place in film, The Cairo International Film Festival was established in 1976. The Festival not only welcomes films inspired by Egyptian history and mythology, but also gives local filmmakers an opportunity to reach a wider audience.
Although the Cairo Festival was once relatively unknown in the West due to location, leadership and funds, the Festival began to make a turnaround in the late 1990s and is now rated by the International Federation of Film Producers' Associations (FIAPF) as one of 11 festivals worldwide with a top class rating. However, in recent years it has faced increasing competition from more glamorous film festivals in Dubai and Marrakesh. Cairo's total budget of £100,000 was paltry compared to its younger Arab rivals and they are increasingly beginning to steal its thunder.
Receptions in Cairo are regal, most held in ancient buildings reopened in honour of the Festival. Watching a premiere in an ancient Egyptian building provides a fitting and spectacular background for the drama and extravagence of film.
CIFF's leading award is the Golden Pyramid that goes to the Best Film. In 2004, the Golden Pyramid Award went to Guardians of the Clouds, an Italian film directed by Luciano Odorisio. The jury described it as "the wonderful dramatic buildup and the director's brilliance in plunging the audience into the depth of emotion, and faithfully portraying an important period of Italian history that glorifies love, friendship, family, and patriotism." The story of a large Italian family in the post-war era helps to present the time period and the theme vividly to the audience.
A Silver Pyramid Prize is also awarded for the Special Jury Prize. The Russian Film Bless the Woman, directed by Stanislav Govorukhin, received the prize in 2004. The film follows a Russian girl from her innocent childhood to the end of her life as a sad, suffering woman. Her heartache seeps through the screen as she suffers the difficulties of marriage, war, and loss of loved ones.
The Naguib Mahfouz Prize goes to the Best First or Second Work of a Director. In 2004, Safy Nebbou, the French director, received the award for his film The Giraffe's Neck. The movie tells of a nine year old girl living with her mother since the rest of her family fell apart. Eventually, she finds letters from a grandmother whom she believed to be dead. However, she begins a search for her grandmother and the truth about her life. Louisa Pili, the actress in the role of the girl, received a special mention from the jury for her role in the film.
Where the Stories Began: The History of the Cairo International Film Festival
In 1975, after a visit to the Berlin Film Festival the late writer-critic Kamal El Mallakh and a group of like-minded cinema critics wondered why such a world-class festival couldn't take place in Egypt. The country was still riding the crest of Egyptian cinema's golden age and contained a formidable film industry, still the biggest in the Arab world. The Cairo International Film Festival was launched in 1976, the first film festival in the entire Middle East.
The Cairo Film Festival moved into the 21st century with hope. Hussein Fahmy, President of Cairo Fest, told UKHotMovies.com at the turn of the Millennium: "As we are moving into the new century, we want to put away the wars and bombings and remember to laugh."
Egyptians seem grateful for the Festival. Most people are never exposed to films made outside of Egypt other than trite Hollywood fare and it offers the opportunity for audiences to watch films from other countries and gain an insight into their customs and concerns.
Special awards, such as the Best Arab Film Award, are available to award the most spectacular regional films of the year. The prize was given to an Egyptian film, Inas El-Degheidy's Searching for Freedom, in 2004, although it was a weak year. Awards for best actor and actress are also given, often going to Egyptians.
Despite behind-the-scenes interference from a brutal dictatorship, Cairo's International Film Festival sometimes becomes a forum for political and cultural statements. 2003 was a major year for the festival as director Khaled Hagar presented his controversial Girls' Love. The only Egyptian entry to the festival that year was the story of a love affair between a young, Egyptian man and a Jewish woman. Hagar was strongly criticised in a country where the majority of people passionately oppose closer ties with the neighbouring Jewish state which has brutally oppressed Arabs for decades.The roster of guests of honour and jury heads over the years is evidence of the Festival's ability to generate international press and recognition, including as it does cinema legends from all over the world: Shabana Azmi, Nicolas Cage, Sophia Loren, John Malkovich, Melina Mercouri, Marcello Mastroianni, Peter O'Toole, Irčne Pappas, Vanessa Redgrave, Omar Sharif, Oliver Stone and Elizabeth Taylor, to name only a few.
CIFF honoured its two star guests American actor Morgan Freeman and French actress Leslie Caron in 2005. There was a screening of Clint Eastwood's A Million Dollar Baby, starring Freeman, Eastwood and Hilary Swank, and Vincent Minnelli's classic musical An American in Paris (1951), starring Caron and Gene Kelly. CIFF's other honorees included Mohamed Mounir and Hanan Turk for their roles in Lebanese director Jocelyn Saab's Dunya (2005), a controversial film focusing on censorship and the oppression of women in Egypt. The Syrian-American producer Mustapha Akkad, who died in a terrorist attack in Amman, Jordan, was also honoured. He is best remembered for the The Message (1976) about the early days of Islam and the spine-chilling Halloween movies.
The 39th Cairo International Film Festival took place from November 21-30, 2017. The movie The Mountain Between Us was screened during the opening ceremony of the festival. The film is directed by the Palestinian-Dutch director Hany Abu-Assad, and stars British actors Kate Winslet and Idris Elba.