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The 2019 Cairo International Film Festival Ushers in a New Era of Arab Cinema

Mohamed Hefzi, President of the Cairo International Film Festival , speaks during the opening of the festival’s 40th edition at the Cairo Opera House in the Egyptian capital on November 20, 2018. Photo: Getty

While the fall film festival season featuring international industry stalwarts such as the Venice Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival is drawing to a close to usher in a winter packed with awards’ evenings, movie buffs in the Middle East are looking forward to the long-anticipated Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) this week, rounding out the illustrious festival lineup with an event close to home.  

As not only the region’s oldest and largest annual film festival but also the only internationally accredited one in the Middle East and Africa, the CIFF has a longstanding legacy of bridging the Arab cinematic world with the global industry through critically acclaimed film premieres, participating renowned talent, and inspiring discussions. CIFF also became the first Arab film festival to sign the 5050×2020 gender equality pledge in October, committing to improving transparency, record-keeping, and parity throughout all processes of the event.   

“CIFF has been through a lot of difficult times and mismanagement caused by the country’s political and economic changes,” said CIFF President Mohamed Hefzy. “However, it is currently trying to reposition itself as a leader among Arab festivals. CIFF has an important role to play not only because it is the oldest running annual festival in the region but also because it is the one festival that takes place in Cairo, the Middle East’s capital of entertainment and cinema for the past century.” 

 The 41st edition dedicated to the late Egyptian film critic and multi-year festival artistic director, Yossef Cherif Rizkallah, will begin November 20 at the Cairo Opera House for 10 days of cinematic events, including 150 film screenings across all genres and lengths, of which 30 will be world or international premieres and 90 will be MENA premieres. Although the films hail from 63 countries around the world, the festival continues to increase Arab representation with 20 selections in the lineup from the MENA region itself.  

“For this year’s edition, we are planning an exciting lineup with many gala screenings,” said Hefzy. “More importantly, we are targeting a surprising international world premiere; something that has not happened at CIFF for many years.”

Opening the CIFF is the Middle East debut of legendary director Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” starring Academy Award-winning actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in their fourth collaboration on the big screen. A jury of top international talent, including Oscar-winning American screenwriter and director Stephen Gaghan, Italian screenwriter and director Daniele Luchetti, Moroccan producer Lamia Chraibi, and Chinese actress Qin Hailu, will decide who will take home the coveted Golden and Silver Pyramid awards for best film and best director respectively. 

British-American screenwriter and actor Terry Gilliam known for his role in Monty Python’s comedy troupe, Egyptian director Sherif Arafa, and Egyptian actor Menna Shalaby will also all be honored with awards during the festival for their indispensable contributions to the craft.   

This year, CIFF plans to focus on three branches: Virtual reality, midnight screenings, and gala screenings to further engage audiences and widen the breadth of content offered during the festival. Following the success of last year’s launch, the second Cairo Industry Days provides emerging professionals a platform to participate in workshops, seminars, and masterclasses with successful industry experts in order to nurture the local scene. Aspiring Arab filmmakers can also win up to USD 200,000-worth of monetary support for yet-to-be-completed projects. 

Although CIFF is still a few days away, it’s already shaping up to be a historic event in not only the regional film world but also the international one. 

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