Egypt Pulse

Under public attack, Cairo film festival cancels award to French director Lelouch

Article Summary
The Cairo International Film Festival's decision to honor Claude Lelouch, the French-Jewish film director who called Israel his homeland, caused a stir among filmmakers and intellectuals, eventually leading the festival to backpedal.

Under condemnations and threats of boycott from Egyptian film directors and intellectuals, the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), the oldest film festival in the Middle East, has backpedaled from an earlier decision to pay homage to French film director Claude Lelouch during its 40th edition next month.

The cancellation comes after several artists and intellectuals protested the festival's decision to give the Faten Hamama Honorary Award to the French director, on the grounds that he is "a supporter of Israel" and called the country his homeland during a visit in 2016. Lelouch, whose film “A Man and A Woman” won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1966, comes from a Jewish-Algerian family.

A source at the festival who requested anonymity told Al-Monitor that the honoring of Lelouch had been canceled, even though it has not been "officially announced" yet.

Ahmed Shawky, the assistant artistic director at CIFF, told Al-Monitor that the festival has already taken "a decision," but he gave no date for the official statement. Shawky insisted on not revealing the decision until the release of the statement. However, several newspapers quoted CIFF President Mohamed Hefzy and artistic director Youssef Cherif Rizkallah as saying that the festival would cancel the ceremony during the festival's opening Nov. 20.

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Initially, the festival organizers had been reluctant to cancel the decision. “We should not consider every director or artist who has visited Israel to be an enemy of the Arabs. If we act like this, we would remain isolated,” Hefzy told Al-Ahram newspaper Oct. 10. 

CIFF's advisory committee released a statement Oct. 17 asking the public to send any documentation that shows the political position of Lelouch against the Palestinians. This development spread the rumors that the festival may cancel the invitation if there is substantial evidence of the French director’s support for Israel. 

The controversy reached its peak last week, after several filmmakers and intellectuals — including cinematographer Saeed Shimi, actress Fardous Abdel Hamid and film director Mohamed Fadel — denounced the festival’s invitation to Lelouch and urged the organizers to cancel the homage to the French director. They said Lelouch backed Israel on different occasions, not just on his last trip in 2016.

Although Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979 that included a complete withdrawal by Israel from the Sinai Peninsula, mutual recognition, ending the state of war and normalization of relations, state-run unions and institutions, including the Egyptian Federation of the Artistic Unions, still refuse to normalize relations with Israel. In addition, the Egyptian public regard Israel as the “enemy."

On Oct. 17, a number of filmmakers, writers and intellectuals posted a statement on Facebook blaming the festival for planning to honor Lelouch, who “adores the Zionist entity.” They described it as a violation of the Egyptian Federation of the Artistic Unions’ stance that rejects all forms of normalization with the “Zionist enemy” and its devotees.

The statement continued that Lelouch, 80, has said in the past that he considers Israel his homeland, and that the French director had cooperated in November 1990 with the Israeli army during its occupation of Lebanon.

“Different political views are normal among people and artists. But it is normal also for me as an Arab to demand the cancellation of honoring someone who went to Israel and announced his ultimate support to what [the country] does to the Palestinian people,” said Malek Khouri, professor of film studies and former director of the Film Program at the American University in Cairo and one of the signatories of the statement.

“We wonder why the organizers did not choose another famous figure rather than Lelouch,” Khouri told Al-Monitor. “We don’t say that we should only invite people who support the Palestinian issue. But why do we choose a person whose support of Israel creates so many question marks for the Egyptians?”

He added that the organizers had not done their homework of researching Lelouch's past sufficiently.

Khouri was among those who urged disinviting Lelouch. “I think there will not be any international response if the invitation is canceled. On the contrary, the cancellation would be greatly welcomed by the Egyptians, Arab countries and even Western countries, because there are many global campaigns that call for boycotting Israel in artistic, social and political activities,” Khouri noted.

Not everyone agrees with that, however. “In any situation you may meet Israelis — not only supporters [of the Palestinian issue] — so you will have to decide whether to withdraw from a competition or to compete with them. In a large international film festival like the Cannes Film Festival we usually participate with a film and so does Israel. Do we not take part and let them have that platform?” Egyptian film critic and writer Magda Khairallah told Al-Monitor.

She said that canceling the honoring of Lelouch makes CIFF look inconsistent.

Support of Israel is a contested issue in the Egyptian cinema. In 2010, Egypt's Cinema Syndicate accused actor Khaled Nabawy of "normalizing ties with Israel" when he starred in the film "Fair Game" alongside Israeli actress Liraz Charhi. The actor was criticized by syndicate officials after embracing Charhi on the red carpet during the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

In 2008, actor Amr Waked was criticized for taking on the role of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law in the BBC mini-series House of Saddam.Israeli actor Igal Naor played Saddam.

However, El Gouna Film Festival, which took place in September, honored actor Sylvester Stallone with a Lifetime Achievement Award, even though he is known to be pro-Israel and attended in 2014 an annual event in support of the Israeli army. The festival's decision did not result in a public outcry — on the contrary, Stallone’s visit to Egypt was celebrated.

“I’m against these double standards. Normalization with Israel has become a loose term,” Khairallah said.

The Cairo International Film Festival, which takes place on Nov. 20- 29, is expected to host 107 feature and documentary films from different countries, including Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Jordan, Libya, Iraq and Tunisia. This year, the festival features a special section titled “Arab Female Directors” in order to celebrate the works of eight female directors from Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.

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Youssra el-Sharkawy, an Egyptian feature writer and columnist, covers cultural issues, human rights, women's empowerment and social problems. Her work has appeared in various local and international news outlets. On Twitter: @YoussraSharkawy

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