The biggest stars of Egyptian cinema lit up the red carpet at the 43rd Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), which kicked off on Friday at the Egyptian capital’s famed opera house in the Zamalek district.
Dressed to the nines, they praised the festival's history, many of them highlighting its reputation as the most prominent film festival in the Arab world, as well as one that solidified Egypt’s status as the “Hollywood of the Middle East”.
On the sidelines of the red carpet, celebrities were invited to play games. During one activity, veteran actor Sherif Mounir was asked to to randomly select the name of a film participating in the festival and guess what it is about based on its poster. In another game, Mona Zaki said the Academy Award-winning Tom Hanks film Forrest Gump was one of her all-time favourites.
While the newer, and arguably more trendy, Gouna Film Festival draws the younger contingent of Egyptian celebrities, CIFF is popular with the more seasoned actors and directors who have been attending it for decades.
In true form, actress Fifi Abdou, 68, gave photographers a show as she twirled in her oversized dress. Her sparkling outfit was made even more ostentatious by a fur coat which she took off and proceeded to spin in the air.
“I have been attending this festival for over 30 years now. One of my favourite movies ever is one I starred in alongside the late Ahmed Zaki, One Woman is Not Enough. It premiered right here in 1990,” Abdou said.
Veteran actress Laila Elwi, 59, on the sidelines of the festival said that some of the most instrumental moments in her career had taken place at the event.
“I will never forget when I won the Best Actress award in 1994 right here in this hall,” she said, gesturing to the Cairo Opera House.
Festival president Mohamed Hefzy, who is marking his fourth year as CIFF director, highlighted the star power of the event, saying that the fame and abilities of those participating puts a huge weight on his shoulders.
Khaled El Sawy, revered for his versatility in tens of successful film roles, made his first public appearance at this year’s CIFF. The actor had been out of the limelight while he recovered from a back injury sustained earlier this year.
The participation of a large number of Arab filmmakers and stars was praised by many of those in attendance. Many of the non-Egyptian Arabs who attended reminisced about how their careers inevitably led them to Egypt.
“We as Arab filmmakers were shaped by Egyptian cinema,” said Saudi director Hend El Fahhad on the sidelines of the festival. El Fahhad is one of five directors who worked on the film Becoming, which is competing in this year’s CIFF.
With 76 feature films, 22 short films, 44 Mena premieres and seven world premieres, the festival’s 43rd year is its largest ever.
The festival is divided into four different competitions: an international competition, a regional competition – titled Horizons of Arab Cinema – a short film competition and the highly anticipated Critics Week competition.
Thirteen films are competing in the international competition this year for the festival’s highest accolade, the Golden Pyramid, awarded annually to the best film. The directors of those films will also be competing for the Silver Pyramid, the festival’s award for best director.
The Egyptian entry in the international competition, Abu Saddam, was singled out as the film that many of the festival's attendees were most excited to see. The film is making its world debut at CIFF this year.
Legendary actress Nadia El Gindy, known for her wit and forthrightness, criticised the government’s support of the festival but did not go into specifics. She opined that in earlier years, cinema enjoyed more of a helping hand from the state.
All those in attendance praised the recipients of this year's honorary awards: Karim Abdel Aziz, who is receiving the Faten Hamama Award, given each year to a prominent figure in the Arab world's film industry for outstanding achievements, and Nelly, who will be awarded the Golden Pyramid Award for Lifetime Achievement, one of the festival’s highest honours.
Abdel Aziz is being recognised for a three-decade career during which he has played a number of beloved roles, and Nelly for her massively popular career as one of the most recognisable Egyptian celebrities from the 1970s to the 1990s.