Egypt's oldest festival makes room for women directors

The Cairo International Film Festival is putting female directors in the spotlight this year, including adding a section dedicated to their works.

al-monitor A general view of Cairo's Opera House during the opening of the 40th Cairo International Film Festival, Egypt, Nov. 20, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

Nov 26, 2018

The Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) celebrates women directors this year with a special section featuring films by Arab women and screenings of films by non-Arab women from around the world.

“Big Dreams,” the 40th edition of Egypt's oldest film festival, runs Nov. 20-29. According to festival director Mohammed Hefzi, this year's event will screen more than 160 movies from 59 countries, with 15% of the films directed by women. 

“It is not a small percentage compared to European festivals,” Hefzi told the Al-Watan newspaper. “For example, in the Venice film festival, there is only one film by a female director in the official competition with 19 films for male directors.”

CIFF organizers said that the Arab Female Directors section was developed with the aim of making the presence of women more visible. The directors featured are Hala Khalil and Hala Lotfy from Egypt, Mai Masri and Annemarie Jacir from Palestine, Haifaa Al-Mansour from Saudi Arabia, Kaouther Ben Hania from Tunisia, Nujoom Alghanem from the United Arab Emirates and Sofia Djama from Algeria.

“Highlighting the works of women filmmakers is important,” Magda Morris, a veteran film critic, told Al-Monitor. “They do a great job, and it’s time for them to claim [recognition]. People, filmmakers, actors and producers should know these great works, so women directors can get more opportunities and enrich Arab cinema. All the movies in the special section are critically acclaimed and important movies.” Morris pointed out that most of the films in the section had already received international awards.

It is not the first time that CIFF has shone a spotlight on women or women's issues. Last year's festival hosted a seminar on fighting violence against women, which Morris moderated.

“I see that this year there are more efforts exerted in the festival [to focus on women filmmakers],” Morris remarked, adding that women are staking more rights not only in Egyptian cinema, but internationally as well. 

The movies featured in Arab Female Directors mostly look at women’s issues, drawing realistic portraits of women from different walks of life. Hala Khalil’s “Nawara” (2015) tells the story of a young woman who works as a maid in the villa of a former minister during the 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Menna Shalaby won Best Actress at the 2015 Dubai International Film Festival and the 2016 Malmo Arab Film Festival for her portrayal of Nawara.

Hala Lotfy’s “Al-Khroug lel-Nahar” (“Coming Forth by Day,” 2012) portrays the struggle of a poor family living in Cairo. Lotfy won Best Director in the Arab World for it at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Another notable movie being screened at CIFF is “3000 Nights” (2015) by Mai Masri, who won the Audience Award at Spain's Valladolid International Film Festival the year it was released. The film is about a Palestinian schoolteacher who is detained in an Israeli prison for a crime she did not commit, and under pressure, becomes an informant against her fellow prisoners.

Annemarie Jacir’s “Wajib” (2017), which won the Festival Director's Award at the 2018 Cinetopia Film Festival in the United States is a disturbing, but often-funny family drama, while Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda (2012) tells the story of a schoolgirl’s effort to buy a bike.

The controversial Tunisian film “Beauty and the Dogs” (2017), directed by Kaouther Ben Hania, is also among the films in the Arab women's section. Tunisia selected it as its 2018 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film. Based on a true story, the film opens with a rape and goes on to dissect efforts by the police, the society at large and at times even the victim herself to cover up the crime.

Sofia Djama's “The Blessed” (2017), which received three awards at last year's Venice International Film Festival, examines life in the 1990s during the Algerian civil war. The only documentary in the Arab women's section, “Sharp Tools” (2017), by Nujoom Alghanem, focuses on the controversial Emirati artist Hassan Sharif.

In addition to providing space for female Arab directors, CIFF is also highlighting woman directors from around the world in the International Competition, which features 16 films. A week before the festival opening, organizers included two more entries in the category to boost women directors’ participation to seven movies.

Mamang” (2018), director by Denise O'Hara of the Philippines, narrates the story of a woman struggling against aging. “Crystal Swan” (2018), by Belarus director Darya Zhuk, shows how a typo interferes in a young woman's attempt at achieving the American dream.

“The main standard for choosing the movies was the quality,” Marwa Abu Eish, a film critic and CIFF program coordinator, told Al-Monitor. “Our aim is not just to increase the number of women directors. We want to screen high-quality films directed by women.” 

Abu Eish noted that while the special section focuses on Arab women who have already achieved success, the International Competition highlights new works by women.

“If there are no movies by Arab female directors in the International Competition, that is because there were no new good works that could be shown in the competition for this year,” Abu Eish explained.

Other films directed by women in the International Competition include “Birds of Passage” (2018), co-directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra and co-produced by Colombia, Denmark, Mexico and France. The film looks at drug trafficking in Colombia.

Euphoria” by Italian director Valeria Golino, “One Day” by Hungarian director Zsófia Szilágyi, “Pause” by Cypriot director Tonia Mishiali and “The Third Wife” by Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair, all released this year, are also competing for awards.

Will Arab women directors have a lasting impact on the region’s film industry? That will be the topic of a Nov. 28 panel discussion, “Wonder Women: How Can Female Filmmakers in the Arab World Have a Lasting Impact on the International Festival Circuit?”.

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