Megan Detrie for The National
Feb. 21, 2012
For the filmmaker Sayed Fouad, Egypt’s first major film festival this year is a coup on several fronts: The first Pan-African festival held in Egypt, organised by civil society and not the Ministry of Culture, and a major cultural event staged outside Cairo.
“There are a lot of film festivals about African movies in the rest of the world, outside Africa, and [the government] cut the communication between Egypt and Africa, in terms of cultural and artistic exchange,” said Fouad, who founded the Luxor Africa Film Festival (LAFF). The week-long festival, which starts today, will show 40 films from 31 countries. Organisers hope to draw 10,000 attendees from around the continent.
“The previous government was stupid politically, they didn’t have any ideas about the importance of our African links,” he added. As Egypt’s previous government sought to establish itself as a power in the Arab world, for decades focusing on pan-Arabism, its relationship with surrounding countries fell by the wayside. With it, Egypt’s music, films and television industry built themselves up as a focal point for Arab culture. The country’s politics created an increasing divide, culturally, economically and socially, from Egypt’s geographic surroundings, said Fouad.
By bringing African filmmakers from Gabon and Burkina Faso to Egypt, and offering workshops and collaborative opportunities, the LAFF organisers say they hope to jump-start the creative connection with the rest of the continent. While Alexandria and Cairo have near nightly cultural events, there are few options for the three quarters of the population who live outside the country’s two main cities. By holding the event in Upper Egypt, far from Cairo, which has long acted as the cultural heart of the Arab world, organisers hope to being new creativity to an oft-neglected region.
“We wanted to decentralise arts events outside of Cairo,” said Fouad, adding, “Luxor is the gate to the African continent, but there’s also something more human there.”
More than 500 miles south of Cairo, Upper Egypt has been long-neglected by officials. Saddled with decades of institutional apathy, this agricultural valley of the Nile has been dismissed for decades as a lost cause, a place from which people leave to seek better employment in Cairo. The region has few community centres, and even fewer theatres. For some cities, such as the small, quiet Luxor, the economy supports itself with tourism, relying on the surrounding abundance of pharaonic monuments to draw busloads of tourists to its dusty backstreets and tree-lined corniche.
To host the festival, organisers built temporary screening houses in Luxor’s ancient pharaonic temple and adapted the city’s newly opened cultural palace, a community centre and museums for showings. In all, the festival will have five venues. “There’s one cinema in the area, and the projector hadn’t been used for 20 years. We’re also screening at a youth centre, where the projector there was a lot better off – it hadn’t been used for only three years,” said Azza El Hosseiny, the executive director of the festival.
But for the organisers, the effort is just a small step towards undoing decades of underinvestment and neglect for the arts in rural areas. On a recent Saturday afternoon, in a quiet, middle-class residential area of Cairo, the festival’s offices were buzzing with activity. El Hosseiny unwrapped the awards, a glass cut-out of Cleopatra’s head, which had arrived earlier that morning. The trophies will be awarded to filmmakers in two categories – feature films and short narrative, which include documentary and animation films.
The festival will screen the filmmaker Merzak Allouache’s Normal, a movie about disillusioned Algerian youth, which won top honours at the 2011 Doha Tribeca Film Festival in October, and the winner of the best documentary at the 2010 Black International Film Festival, Yaba Badoe’s The Witches of Gambaga, about a group of women in Ghana ostracised from their community as witches.
The festival will pay special tribute to Daoud Abdel Sayed, one of Egypt’s most acclaimed filmmakers and the Ethiopian-born filmmaker Haile Gerima. With insufficient funds after last year’s popular uprising, the government cancelled most major festivals. Big tourist draws such as the Cairo International Film Festival, the Dance Theater Festival, the Experimental Theater Festival and the TV and Radio Festival were all put on hold by the Ministry of Culture. Though partially funded by the government, LAFF is asserting its independence from the ministry.
Indeed, for El Hosseiny, it is time for civil society to fill in the gaps left by government ministries struggling to adapt in an continuing and unstable interim period.
“Before there were only ministries who made festivals, especially in cinema,” she said, adding, “after the revolution, there must be change. We have experience in organising events, and the government institution has become very bad so now it’s our role to play in this era.”