The Square and sequels on show at Egypt’s Ismailia film festival

The Ismailia International Film Festival has grown to become arguably the most important event of its kind in Africa and the Middle East.

Khalid Abdalla, left, and Ahmed Hassan in Jehane Noujaim's documentary The Square. Noujaim Films / Netflix/ AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

This November sees the return of the Cairo International Film Festival, which has been given a new lease of life under the directorship of Samir Farid, the renowned critic and Dubai International Film Festival honoree.

But before the region can welcome the revival of its oldest cinematic celebration, another prestigious – and relatively senior – event lands about 130 kilometres north-east of the Egyptian capital.

The Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries & Shorts, now into its 17th edition, kicks off tomorrow in the small city on the west bank of the Suez Canal.

Having launched in 1991, the festival has grown to become arguably the most important event of its kind in Africa and the Middle East, fuelled by a recent rise in documentary production.

Coming just a week after Egypt's presidential elections, the festival is seemingly throwing caution to the wind, offering the country's premiere of its Academy-Award-nominated documentary The Square.

"The Square is one of the more controversial films in recent Egyptian cinema memory," says Mohamed Hefzy, the Ismailia director and a prolific producer and scriptwriter, referring to Jehane Noujaim's revolutionary documentary, which was banned from Egyptian cinema just a few months ago for its perceived criticism of the military. "And we are happy to show it for the first time in Egypt," he adds.

But Hefzy says that the selection of films – picked from between 700 to 1,000 submissions – has been purely based on quality, rather than any political affiliation.

The festival will open with Jews of Egypt – End of a Journey, Amir Ramses's sequel to the acclaimed, and also controversial, 2012 documentary Jews of Egypt, which discussed Jewish involvement in Egypt during the first half of the last century and their subsequent exile.

Another noted film in the schedule is The Eighth Wonder, John Feeny's epic Egyptian documentary that narrates the story, aided by Hussein Bicar paintings, of the Ramses II temple in Abu Simbel and its move to higher land during the 1960s construction of the Aswan High Dam. The film originally premiered in Berlin in 1974, but was subsequently lost from the Egyptian Documentary Film Archive. The last surviving copy was dedicated to the New Zealand Film Archive, which supervised the digitisation of the print for the Ismailia International Film Festival.

“We’re trying to show less but be more selective,” says Hefzy of this year’s line-up.

While there may be numerous premieres among the list, the region's film-festival attendees will recognise My Love Awaits Me by the Sea, the beautifully poetic Palestinian documentary by Mais Darwazah that screened in Dubai last December. Sherief Elkatsha's Cairo Drive, which screened at last year's Abu Dhabi Film Festival, delves into Egypt's great metropolis through the eyes of its seemingly permanently gridlocked drivers. The short Xenos could be considered the follow-up to A World Not Ours, Mahdi Fleifel's superb documentary about the Ain el Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon that won in Abu Dhabi in 2012, followed by wins at a host of international film festivals.

"We feel there has been a surge in documentary filmmaking in the region," says Hefzy, who is also the co-producer and writer on From A to B, Ali F Mostafa's follow up to City of Life. "Perhaps that is due to the political changes sweeping the region and the growing number of festivals and organisations that help fund documentaries."

Among the members of the jury is the Syrian auteur Mohammad Malas, plus up-and-coming regional names such as Wael Omar (In Search of Oil and Sand) and Hala Lotfy (Coming Forth By Day).

Hefzy says the film Electro Chaabi, about a new style of music that blends traditional folk sounds with electro and freestyle rap, was last year's standout hit, firing up a long-running festival tour for its first time director Hind Meddeb. "We're hoping to find discoveries such as this one this year."