Mohamed Hefzy sits in a wicker armchair in the garden of the Hotel Quattro Fontane to talk to The National about his jury duty in the Orizzonti section of the Venice International Film Festival. In March, the maverick Egyptian producer was appointed president of the Cairo International Film Festival, which has been running annually since 1976.
While Hefzy was in Venice on duty with fellow jury members, including American filmmaker Michael Almereyda, Italian writer and director Andrea Pallaoro and jury president Athina Tsangari, he admits he's wearing a few different hats. Hefzy was also paying close attention to one of the projects he had produced – Certified Mail by Hisham Saqr – which participated in Final Cut – a post-production support platform for African and Middle Eastern films, as part of the Venice festival.
The Egyptian producer returns to his roots as a writer, when the script he wrote back in 2009 begins filming in Egypt in a few days. "The working title is New Year's Eve; it's set the year before the 2011 revolution, on the Egyptian Red Sea in an upscale resort, and depicts one day in the lives of various characters that come from opposite social backgrounds," Hefzy explains. The film, directed by debut filmmaker Mohamed Sakr, digs into the gradual disappearance of a proper middle class in Egypt, because that is what gives a society "its identity and values", according to Hefzy. He hopes it will make us rethink "our perception of what Egyptian society is today".
However, does he feel pressure as the new president of the Cairo International Film Festival? “Cairo is also a festival with a big pedigree and a lot of history,” the Egyptian producer explains. Instead, he says, “the pressure comes from a different place – it comes from trying to stage a big festival that shows 150 films, does something for the industry, invites filmmakers and press and, at the same time, we are trying to survive on a very limited budget which is financed by the Ministry of Culture.”
And that is all on top of trying to drum up private sector support for the festival. And there’s also competition in the making with the El Gouna Film Festival, which Hefzy has also shown his support for from the start, bringing some of his projects there during the festival’s debut last year.
“They have a really great team,” he admits, one which includes former Abu Dhabi Film Festival programmer Intishal Al Timimi as artistic director. “It’s funny,” he says, “a lot of people think I run the El Gouna Film Festival!” The producer recently posted an online disclaimer stating that he doesn’t work with the festival.
“We compete for the Egyptian premiere for films, sometimes we compete for the Middle East premiere for competition films, for sponsors and for projects sometimes, in our co-production markets – but at the same time, we also exchange information and support each other in a way.”
Hefzy admits it is “a friendly and healthy competition.” With all these festivals in the region, which this year will include the highly anticipated return of the Marrakech International Film Festival, which will run following the festival in Cairo. He is confident they can “complement each other and offer more support for the film industry.”
The Cairo International Film Festival has definitely seen quite a few changes at the top over the past few years and the producer admits he plans to stay on for three years in his mandate as president. “I’m not expecting everything to go right from my first year in charge, it’s a turnaround that will take two or three years,” continuing that his work there, “has to start by dealing with some of the issues we had in the past few years and a lot of these were related to the situation in Egypt in general and in our world,” he explains.
I ask him about the initiatives and strategies he is helping to bring to Cairo. “One we are going to announce soon is a midnight section for a genre films. We are working on a non-competitive virtual reality section; we have already announced our industry initiatives and are really focused on a revamped Cairo Film Connection, a bigger one – more projects, money and support and better projects.
“We’ve announced two workshops, including one with Screen Buzz for which we’re bringing several showrunners from the United States to train TV writers to improve their skills.”
Hefzy is considered to be part of a new wave of Egyptian cinema professionals who promise to tell human stories, while staying away from politics. Abu Bakr Shawky's comedy film Yomeddine, which debuted in competition at Cannes this year, is one example. The film tells the story of a Coptic leper and his orphaned apprentice who leave the confines of the leper colony for the first time to embark on a journey across Egypt in search of what is left of their families. The producer describes the choice to feature a first-time filmmaker in the prestigious section of the festival "a brave programming decision from [artistic director] Thierry Fremaux," and admits "Cannes is still the number one festival if you're trying to bring a film to the world." Despite the film's mixed press reviews, Hefzy says: "I don't regret being in that theatre with 2,500 people for a 10-minute standing ovation – it was just fantastic!"
The Cairo International Film Festival runs from November 20 to 29. For more information, visit www.ciff.org.eg