Mysterious sheets of plastic appeared on the railings of the Cairo Opera House on 17th November. The railings separate the Opera grounds from the busy central artery of Tahrir Street, an extension of the Qasr El-Nil bridge popular with ambulant lovers taking evening strolls.
The sheets’ function was revealed the following day when guests of the Cairo International Film Festival made their appearance at the opening ceremony, parading the red carpet in their diamante-studded, perfumed glory. The sheets had been strategically-placed to protect the good and the grand of Hollywood and Spain and Egypt from the unwholesome, hungry stares of Egypt’s hoi polloi.
Rows of security guards along the red carpet, a 100 metre gap and metal railings were apparently not enough to protect the A-listers from whatever mischief the CIFF/Opera organisers feared the no-listers would engage in: they were not prepared to risk the evening being defiled by the uninvited participation of the unimportant in any form.
This attitude – exclusion – seems to be the ethos of the 32 year-old festival. 2008 was my second film festival, and I have yet to understand who, exactly, it is for. Article 1 of the CIFF regulations (available on its lamentably inaccurate website, about which more later) states the following:
The goal of The Cairo International Film Festival is to promote films, to create artistic links between different nations, to encourage comprehension and meetings between cinema professionals around the world and to develop the Film industry in the Arab world, in the Middle East and all over the world
As I understand it, this goal encompasses behind-the-sheets ordinary people of all nationalities, (“different nations”) and actors, film directors and producers and journalists (“cinema professionals”). In short it means everybody.
The reality is very different. The most important thing to bear in mind for the uninitiated is that the CIFF takes place in Cairo, which is in Egypt, which – for all its wonderful qualities – remains a class-ridden autocracy of individual fiefdoms where rules are designed to fit wallets and who you know is more important than who you are.
This stratification has necessarily seeped into all areas of the CIFF. Witness Omar Sherif’s remarks in the opening ceremony about Egyptians being poor but “always smiling…smiling at the sun and the blue sky, and knowing that if they don’t get their reward in this life they’ll get it in the next”. Which is perhaps why it doesn’t matter that the smiling buffoons had been kept behind the sheets.
Within the CIFF fiefdom Hollywood has most currency, followed by Egyptian stars, followed by popular Turkish soap opera actors. This year Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron, Julia Ormond and Mira Sorvino brought the LA starlight to the Festival, guarded by Amr Badr, a cigar-smoking individual whose job as far as I can tell is to keep members of the lower species known as the press as far away from his charges as possible. We were batted away like flies.
The flights and accommodation of these guests are paid for by the Festival. Is it conscionable that in a week’s stay in Cairo they are brought out for only 1 or 2 press conferences and spend the rest of the time sight-seeing? The question again poses itself: who is the CIFF for?
CIFF’s relationship with the press is a story in itself. I attended ten CIFF events (film screenings/press conferences/symposiums) this year, only five of which went without a hitch. Finding out about the timing of these events was in itself a challenge because I made the mistake of relying on the CIFF website, whose schedule is as reliable as a pubescent teenager.
I went to the Good News cinema on Sunday expecting to watch Fawzeyya’s Secret Recipe. Having been informed that it was playing in the main auditorium I waited as a press conference for another film came to an end. It ended, and I was then ejected from the auditorium “so it could be cleaned.”
I went back upstairs to the smaller screen where I located the man who had given me the wrong information. “No, Fawzeyya is playing here, and it’s for the judging committee only.” No apology was offered, no explanation.
I didn’t have the chance to ask why he had chosen to neglect communicating this minor detail to me an hour ago, because next to me an extremely angry Palestinian woman was trying to extract some sense out of a Good News employee.
She had come specifically to watch Palestinian film Salt of This Sea, at the Good News cinema. The problem is, Salt of This Sea had at some point been moved to the Opera Creativity Centre. I had found this detail out entirely by chance two hours before, from the film’s director herself. God knows how many people missed the film because of the organisers’ failure to update the website.
The woman said that this was the second time she encountered this problem. The Good News man said he wasn’t responsible, that the CIFF organisers bore responsibility. But of course.
(Unfortunately, it was crap) I got to see Fawzeyya’s Secret Recipe in the end, seated on the cinema floor (no problem, I have a press card, I wasn’t paying) with my friend (who had paid for a seat).
When I went to the Creativity Centre to watch Under the Bombs on Wednesday I was accompanied by the same press pass-less friend. Not a problem since the CIFF website announced the screening as open to the press and public.
They refused to let my friend in at first on the pretext that attendance was by invitation only, and that we had to go to the press centre to get an invitation. Tired and frustrated by a week of similar incidents I must admit that I lost my rag with the Creativity Center official who told me that in fact no, I had not seen an (American) friend admitted into the Creativity Center without an invitation earlier this week to watch Salt of This Sea. I had. He wasn’t having any of it.
Voices were raised, as was blood pressure, until another Creativity Center official took my friend aside, took an invitation (for an entirely different film) out of his pocket and gave it to him saying “this is my fiancee’s but I’m giving it to you”(!) before admitting him.
Is there an equivalent word for ‘je m’en foutisme’ in English? Its literal translation is not giving a damn-ism, and should be the CIFF’s motto.
On Friday I turned up at 11.30 a.m. for a symposium on human rights. A CIFF official appeared at 11.45 a.m. and announced that the symposium would begin at 1 p.m. “as had been stated on official invitations.” Some of us lower-level amoeba hadn’t received this invitation. Who cares. Our time isn’t important, after all.
The not giving a damn extends to guests, too. Annemarie Jacir, director of Salt of This Sea told me that some of the actors and crew involved in her film had been invited to the Festival, and that visas would be waiting for them at Cairo Airport.
Then, she told me via email, this happened:
Then they ‘suddenly’ couldn’t help us and told us 3 days before flying that there would be no visas for them at the airport nor would they help get them one. So it was urgent because Ossama [Bawardi, the Palestinian producer] had a flight landing him in Cairo airport and suddenly was told he had no visa to enter. The festival wouldn’t even help us change the flight or give any solutions so I ended up paying myself for a new ticket since Cairo fest refused to take responsibility for it. I am of course totally broke and it cost us a lot of money that we simply don’t have.
CIFF had “discovered” that Jacir’s Palestinian crew members hold Israeli passports and summarily dropped them.
This is aside from the fact that upon arriving in Cairo Jacir was hustled into a symposium at the last minute. She had no prior idea what the symposium was about or what was expected of her. Aleya Hammad, the symposium’s moderator (who in an urgent whisper asked her who she was while she was on the podium), described Jacir’s feature film as a documentary.
At the beginning of Charlize Theron’s press conference, as photographers and cameramen fought in front of her to get the good angles, press conference moderator Ezzet Abo Auf said (in Arabic) “let’s have some order, we don’t want to look bad in front of our guests.”
This obsession with image. With makeup, and fireworks, and revolving stages that spin out their startled occupants as the crowd claps and the music plays and ugly reality is kept at bay outside, 100 metres and a million miles away behind a plastic sheet.
I reject the argument that because CIFF is held in Egypt, we should forgive it the incompetence of its organisation, the constant screw-ups, the continual late starts, the complete absence of a relationship with the press…etc.
That stuff (independent political parties, World Cup bids, independent film festivals, historical parliamentary buildings, police-citizen relations) is repeatedly messed up in Egypt is clearly not because of some entrenched incompetence within the fabric of Egyptian society. Rather, the problem is twofold: firstly, talent is usually inextricably linked with creativity, and original thought, and is therefore a potential risk. Secondly, raw natural talent lacking the benefits of wealth and connections is necessarily crushed by poverty and its associated concrete ceilings.
Which means, inevitably, that many of those at the top are dullards, and all take care of interests other than those of the many million they are meant to represent.
CIFF – like everything else in Egypt – is the embodiment of these factors, the embodiment of this calamity. Its mistakes therefore aren’t just minor errors, or the product of good ole Egyptians and their quaint time-keeping. Rather, they are the manifestation of a sickness.