Although political events in the Arab world, especially the Arab Spring, have served as inspiration for numerous locally-produced films, few of them make it to regional film festivals.
In November, the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) excluded director Tamer El Said's film "In the Last Days of the City" for murky reasons, and the following month, the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) pulled out of a screening of Egyptian director Ahmed Roshdy's animated film "The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller," even excluding it from the Muhr short film competition.
The DIFF's statement on the film's removal read: “The Dubai International Film Festival and the cast and crew of 'The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller' … regret to inform you that they have been unable to screen the film due to unforeseen circumstances.” The festival did not reveal what circumstances that prompted the film's removal from the festival were.
Roshdy posted on Facebook that the crew and cast were informed of the cancellation only 24 hours before the screening was to take place. He wrote that the film had been approved in November for screening and that it was not excluded for any flaws in its submission to the DIFF.
“I did this movie, and I know well the consequences it will have,” he wrote. Sources close to Roshdy told Al-Monitor that he was referring to the political consequences arising from the film's story and content.
"The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller," featuring Egyptian actors Khaled Abol Naga and Tara Emad, tells the story of a young man named Khaled who is trying to uncover the circumstances of the murder of a child who sold potatoes in Tahrir Square during the January 25 Revolution.
The story is said to be based on that of a child named Omar Salah, who sold potatoes in the vicinity of the US Embassy in central Cairo.
On Feb. 14, 2013, the Egyptian army issued a statement claiming responsibility for the killing of Salah by mistake during demonstrations marking the second anniversary of the January 25 Revolution.
“The story is one of the few stories about the Egyptian armed forces’ involvement in the murder of civilians since January 2011 and until today," a source close to Roshdy told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "Roshdy’s choice of Omar Salah’s story stirred the sensitivity of film festivals toward this movie, especially Arab film festivals such as the DIFF, given the close relationship between the UAE and the Egyptian regime, headed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, one of the former leaders of the Egyptian armed forces who served as defense minister when Omar Salah was killed.”
On Oct. 26, just before the DIFF’s exclusion of Roshdy's film, the CIFF issued its decision to exclude El Said's "In the Last Days of the City."
The film is about a young director named Khaled who is struggling to make a film that captures the grandeur of Cairo and the dreams of its citizens. Khaled is also dealing with some personal problems, facing eviction from his apartment and a girlfriend who wants to leave Egypt. The film sheds light on the negative political, social and economic phenomena taking place in Egypt before the January 25 Revolution.
CIFF artistic director Youssef Cherif Rizkallah said in an Oct. 25 video posted to Facebook that the CIFF excluded the film since it had already been screened at a large number of international festivals, including those in Berlin, London, Chicago and Montreal. “The CIFF was forced to exclude the film since its screening would suggest that CIFF was chosen last after a long list of international festivals,” Rizkallah said.
The filmmakers tried repeatedly to convince the CIFF to renounce its decision, but to no avail. In a Nov. 12 press statement, the filmmakers accused the CIFF of adopting double standards since many films that the CIFF was to screen had also been shown at numerous international film festivals.
The filmmakers stressed that the producers and crew abided by the CIFF's terms and conditions, and that the film had not previously been screened at any Arab festival. They wrote that the exclusion from the CIFF ruined the film’s chances of participating in any Arab film festival in 2016.
Movie critic Tarek El Shennawi couldn't rule out a possible role by the Egyptian state in the exclusion of the film from the CIFF, an organization supervised by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. “We are living in a state of restriction of freedoms," he told Al-Monitor.
Shennawi added, "The movies and artists associated with the events of Jan. 25 are the most affected by this situation. I do not mean that there is a systematic hostility shown by the regime toward the January 25 Revolution and the related and ensuing works of art, but I mean that some members of the current regime hate the January 25 Revolution and refuse to let any piece of art representing it or related to it to be under the public spotlight.”
He continued, “I do not expect movies like 'The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller' and 'In the Last Days of the City' to be offered the right opportunities to be screened in cinemas for normal audiences outside the scope of festivals in light of the monopoly by a network of producers and distributors over cinema theaters. I think this network probably has influence on Egyptian film festivals and some Arab film festivals.”
Art critic Nader Adli told Al-Monitor, “The CIFF probably excluded 'In the Last Days of the City' under pressure from the General Directorate for the Censorship of Artistic Works — which is affiliated with the Ministry of Culture and headed by Khaled Abdul Jalil, the adviser to the minister of culture for cultural and cinematic production — rejecting large segments of the film’s content.” Adli said that the CIFF should not have responded to pressure.
In the era of President Hosni Mubarak, Abdul Jalil served as president of the National Centre for Cinema, and he kept his position after the revolution despite many objections, as one of the remnants of the Mubarak regime.
Film critic and "Life in Cinema" blogger Amir al-Omari described him as a being close to the policies committee of the National Party and to Gamal Mubarak, son of the former president.
Several prominent young filmmakers called for Abdul Jalil’s departure, most notably young filmmaker Al-Zamakhshari Abdullah, but he remained in office and was promoted to the post of adviser to the minister of culture and head of the General Directorate for the Censorship of Artistic Works.
“The CIFF is giving Egyptian cinematographic works a hard time, thus pushing young Egyptian filmmakers to prefer participating in other Arab and international film festivals,” Adli said. “I believe special circumstances have led to the DIFF’s decision to pull out 'The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller' from screening. We must wait for the disclosure of more details, especially since the festival’s administration and the filmmakers announced the exclusion of the film in a joint statement, which suggests that a compromise was reached.”
A general state of resentment toward the state bodies’ supervision over the festival seems to prevail, especially among artists. Renowned actor Hussein Fahmy, a former UN goodwill ambassador to Egypt and former president of the CIFF, pointed out on the sidelines of a Jan. 10 seminar organized by Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm that he is ready to preside over the festival again if its administration disassociates itself from the Ministry of Culture and moves away from bureaucracy.
It seems that some Arab film festivals are turning their backs on the many films that were inspired by the January 25 Revolution. Will this phenomenon spread to include all of the Arab Spring revolutions?
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