While the annual film festival season in the West comes to an end with the Hollywood Academy Awards (or “Oscars”), Egypt follows it with another important big screen event – The Catholic Center Film Festival.
This year SAT-7 was at the Cairo event to film both the opening and closing ceremonies (27 February and 6 March) and highlight a selection of Egypt’s best home-grown films for Arab-speaking viewers. Now in its 63rd year, the festival itself is the oldest film showcase event in a country that was historically known as “The Hollywood of the Middle East”.
Each year films are selected according to the Catholic Film Center’s moral and human principles which exclude films with sex or violence at their core. According to Fr Boutros Danial, the Center’s president, 2015’s five selected features were all chosen for tackling societal problems and taboos in modern-day Egypt. SAT-7 ARABIC was keen to highlight this year’s choices because of its own commitment to encourage Christians to live out their faith in all areas of life – including the arts – and to help them confront social problems with Christ’s values and love.
A jury of industry professionals, headed by veteran director Omar Abdel Aziz, chose five quite different films from a list of 36.
SAT-7’s screening of the opening and closing ceremonies allowed audiences at home to share in the glitz of the event, sample the films, and reflect on the history of Egyptian cinema. Along with the traditional speeches by organisers and award winners, the opening included a documentary. This recalled the history of the festival and winning films from previous years. Five songs from Moroccan singer Jannat brought lively music to the event, and presentations were given to a number of film and TV pioneer actresses.
It was left to the closing ceremony to hand out accolades to this year’s winners. Excuse My Frenchclaimed four awards including best film, while Décor scooped another four including best actor and best actress.
The entire 63rd festival was dedicated to the memory of legendary Egyptian actress Faten Hamama (a former wife of internationally renowned Egyptian actor Omar Sharif), who died earlier this year. Fittingly, the closing ceremony also honoured this much-loved figure of Egyptian cinema in an 8-minute film The Legend Never Dies. Fr Boutros Danial said, “It is the least we could do for an actress who gave a so much to her viewers through her long acting career and left a legacy of art productions that promoted highly desired human values.”
The films and their awards
Factory Girl (2013) directed by Mohamed Khan Factory girl follows the life and dreams of a 21-year old girl, Hayam (Yasmeen El-Raees), from a poor background who works in a textile factory and falls in love with her supervisor, Salah (musician and actor Hany Adel). Although from a more privileged background, he is coping with the reality of narrowly failing his high school exams and missing out on his hopes of training as a mechanical engineer. The film was well reviewed, has received multiple awards from international film festivals and was selected by in the Foreign-Language category at the 87th Academy Awards (Oscars).
Coming Forth by Day (2012) directed by Hala Lotfy
Artistic innovation award for Director and Jury Encouragement Award for actress Dina Maher
The film depicts a day in the life of a mother and daughter struggling in a rundown neighbourhood to care for a sick father. Batting off criticism by some for being too harrowing and experimental for mainstream audiences, director Hala Lotfy told Ahram Online, “This film may show blatant ugliness, but it reflects a reality that we all live, one that we should meditate on from a distance, so that we can figure out what to do about it.”
Décor (2014) directed by Ahmed Abdallah
Best actress Horeya Farghaly; best actor Maged El Kedwany; best editing; best soundtrack; Jury Special Award for the director
Shot in black and white in homage to the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema, this “Sliding Doors-style story” (according to Screen Daily) depicts the life of Maha (Horeya Farghaly), an a film set designer hired to work on a B-movie in Cairo. Working night and day on the production, she begins to blur the lines between her own life as a childless career woman and that of the much-loved mother and lead character of the movie. Décor was screened at Tunisia’s Carthage International Film Festival and premiered internationally at BFI London Film Festival.
Excuse My French (2014) directed by Amr Salama
Best film; best cinematography; best script; best director
Described by Al Ahram as “a fresh unconventional take on discrimination in Egypt”, the film tells the story of a 14-year-old boy, Hany (Ahmed Dash) whose family suffers a financial setback after his father dies and his mother has to move him from a fee-paying school to a public one where he faces social and cultural differences and is afraid to reveal his religion as Christian for fear of being intimidated by his classmates. Al Ahram compared the film’s mannered style and use of vividly depicted minor characters with the work of Wes Anderson, the US director of Grand Budapest Hoteland The Royal Tenenbaums.
Made in Egypt (2014) directed by Amr Salama
The second film in competition by director Amr Salama, Made in Egypt is a fantasy feature which follows the journey of a toy shop owner, who lacks ambition and direction, but whose life is transformed after his sister puts a curse on him and he embodies a toy panda bear. Much anticipation surrounded the film launch which released in 100 cinemas across Egypt last summer.
Cinema in Egypt
- Cinema came to Egypt early. Less than a year after the Lumiere brothers screened their first short films in Paris, they were shown in Alexandria. Small cinema halls soon opened in Alexandria and Cairo.
- 1927 saw the making of Egypt’s first two feature films, A Kiss in the Desert and Layla. The first true production studios, Misr Studios (Egypt Studios) were built in 1935.
- From the 1940s Egypt was a regional powerhouse in the film industry making and exporting 50 features a year, often vying with European and American films for their technical quality.
- Today, Egyptian cinema is dominated by commercial films, especially imported features from Hollywood. Audiences are eager to see all the big, talked about films.
- Cairo alone has around 50 multiplex cinemas. The appetite for cinema is immense, partly thanks to the country’s densely concentrated populations and lack of open-air public meeting spaces.
- Egypt produced 33 films in 2014. Most home-grown productions are released during the festival seasons, like Eid El-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha, when most people are on holiday.
- The Egyptian film stock produced in the last 100 years is around 3,000 films
Written by Mary Joseph, SAT-7 Egypt, and Lindsay Shaw, SAT-7 UK