Evolution of a film festival

A month before its opening on November 18, the 32nd Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) is already beset by controversy

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A month before its opening on November 18, the 32nd Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), an Egyptian culture ministry event, is already beset by controversy. Following a statement by the culture minister, Farouk Hosni, that journalists would not be allowed in the main hall of the Cairo Opera House for the opening ceremony but would instead watch the proceedings live on screens placed elsewhere within the opera complex, press and film scene activists have launched a campaign (on Facebook as well as elsewhere online and in the real world) to boycott the 10-day, high-profile event, one of the most ambitious in the Arab world.

More seriously, concerns have been raised over the ministry's reliance on sponsorship from Alkan Holding, the large company headed by the businessman Mohammed Nusseir, who presides over the second largest mobile phone network in Egypt, Vodaphone, now that CIFF's better loved sponsor, the celebrated businessman Naguib Sawiris, is no longer providing funds. Alkan is responsible for the Citadel Towers construction project, which critics claim is an ecological and archaeological catastrophe that threatens the foundations of the Salahuddin Citadel, a major historical site within Cairo. Intellectuals had long censured Hosni for his monument preservation policies and the minister's newly forged alliance with Alkan now lends weight to such critiques.

Neither the programme nor the jury members in this year's event have yet been announced. All that is known for sure is that CIFF is still headed by the veteran actor and musician Ezzat Abu Ouf, who has proved to be a far more dynamic president than his predecessor, the actor Hussein Fahmi. Once again, the presence of "Egypt's international star" Omar Sharif was deemed sufficiently important to make him an honorary president - a fact that the festival media team, aware of Sharif's phenomenal popularity in Egypt, have tended to capitalise on. Insiders say this year's programme, reflecting Abu Ouf's energetic networking, is particularly exciting, with a line-up of American art house films as well as broad ranging representation from beyond the traditional film centres of the world.

Once a locally-orientated, chaotic event that yearly turned the downtown movie theatres into free-for-alls celebrating the opportunity to see foreign fare, CIFF is gradually coming into its own as a respected stop on the global festival itinerary. It is a pity that its organisers have yet to make peace with its better informed patrons. Questions will always arise as to the festival's relevance to a generally floundering, or perceived to be floundering, Egyptian film industry, but few commentators have any doubts about the potential of the event as a catalyst, a showcase and a forum; a less exclusive orientation and more democratic attitudes on the part of the ministry, it is thought, could turn CIFF into a uniquely effective stimulant in Arab cultural life.

Still, the ministry seems to be reaching out to young as well as not so young filmmakers by launching a dedicated digital feature film competition in addition to the 35mm competition it has always supported, reflecting the tendency to save production costs by working in digital format - adopted by, among many others, the well established Egyptian filmmaker Mohammed Khan in his last film, Kelefti, and the most brilliant of the late Youssef Chahine's followers, Youssri Nasrallah. Many excellent full-length features would never have been made had it not been for advances in digital technology, and in making room for it CIFF seems to be embracing the realities of contemporary Arab and world film.