The widely celebrated feature debut from Tunisian director Mehdi Barsaoui, Bik Eneich (A Son), will head the line-up of this year's popular-with-the-audience competition Horizons of Arab Cinema, part of the 41st Cairo International Film Festival, which starts on Wednesday, November 20.
Barsaoui's A Son will compete with 11 other features from the region. It is an expansion that involves the introduction of two new awards (Best Non-Fiction Film and Best Acting Performance) and increasing the number of jury members from three to five. The programme previously featured eight films and handed out only two awards: the Saad El Din Wahba Award for Best Arab Film and the Special Jury Award, named after veteran Egyptian director Salah Abu Seif, both of which will remain.
According to the festival’s official statement, Horizons of Arab Cinema has made a strong name for itself, with “few if any seats in the theatres unoccupied during screenings. This reflects the Cairo audience’s interest in all that is new in Arab cinema … The higher number of films will give the curatorial team a greater opportunity to put together a richer competition more expressive of the latest trends in the constantly evolving sphere of Arab filmmaking.”
When asked about the timing of these changes, Egyptian producer and festival president Mohamed Hefzy told The National that with the postponement of the Dubai International Film Festival, which had become a pillar of the industry, there was a sudden "void to fill".
“There is no longer an apt platform for Arab filmmakers that offers both exposure and support. The fact that more Arab films have been featured in leading film festivals of late also poses an opportunity” to bring these films to Cairo, he added.
Although the future of Diff – which in April last year announced it was seeking "a new approach" in an industry that "is changing fast" – remains uncertain, there has been an increase in the past two years in the number of Arab films screened at major festivals such as Cannes, the Berlinale and the Toronto International Film Festival.
Between Elie Suleiman's Palme d'Or contender It Must Be Heaven, which was also screened at Tiff last month; Moroccan director Maryam Touzani's debut feature Adam (Cannes, Tiff); Sudan's strong emergence with Marwa Zein's Khartoum Offside (Berlinale); Suhaib Gasmelbari's Talking About Trees (Berlinale); and Amjad Abu Alala's first feature You Will Die at 20 (which won the Lion of the Future award at Venice and recently scooped the Golden Star award for best narrative feature film at the El Gouna Film Festival); there's much anticipation this year.
"Obviously, the new changes directly benefit filmmakers, but they are also intended to cater to the audiences' needs, especially that the films we screen are not available elsewhere," said Hefzy.
While the festival has received criticism for what is perceived as excessive spending on social functions rather than core content, there has been an effort to bring in a wider selection of films from the Arab world in the past few years. According to the festival's statement, it "has been seeking greater support for Arab cinema" since its 40th event, during which, for the first time, a monetary prize of $15,000 (Dh55,000) was awarded to the Egyptian film Poisonous Roses after it was crowned Best Arab Feature by an independent jury.
The line-up of films competing in Horizons of Arab Cinema events is expected in the coming weeks.