Mohamed Hefzy • Director, Cairo International Film Festival
“We’re helping to give a great image of the country, and it just needs to be communicated”
by Matthew Boas
- We sat down with Egypt’s Mohamed Hefzy, a big name in the world of production who is currently helming his first-ever Cairo Film Festival
At the Cairo International Film Festival (20-29 November), currently in full swing in the Egyptian capital, we got the chance to chat to Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy, who, through his Film Clinic outfit, has staged a wide variety of productions, many of which in partnership with European co-producers, such as the hit Clash [+see also:
film profile] by Mohamed Diab, which premiered in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2016. Earlier this year, he was chosen by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to head up the festival as its director, and we spoke to him about his interesting and bold approach to the gathering.
Cineuropa: We last spoke to you in 2015, around the time you were preparing Clash. What have you been up to since then?
Mohamed Hefzy: Clash took a while to make, but it was really important in my career because it was at Cannes and went to all these great festivals and got some solid distribution. It didn’t do that well in theatres, but it was sold in more than 20 territories, so for me it was a really good result. Then we made Sheikh Jackson, which was not as successful in terms of sales, but the premiere at Toronto was fantastic, and it was our fourth or fifth collaboration with the director, Amr Salama. At the same time, I was making Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim [+see also:
film profile], which was another first feature, and I was working on one or two other co-productions, including a Luxembourgish-Belgian-Egyptian co-production called Sawah, which is not out yet but is finished. I’ve worked on a few films and a couple of TV series as well, so it’s been a really busy time in terms of production, at least up until April or May, when I took over responsibility for the Cairo Film Festival. Then I decided to produce less, or just not be directly involved with managing production, and instead I tried to focus more on getting the festival ready on time, and it’s been like that for seven months. I did produce one film recently, which is still in production, but I’m not so involved in the day-to-day production of it.
How did your new position at Cairo come about?
I got a call from the Minister of Culture at the beginning of April, completely out of the blue. I think I was nominated by Youssef Rizkallah, who was the artistic director at the time, and he basically said, “I recommended you as the president – the Minister of Culture asked me who I thought could do the job, and you were the first name that came to mind.” I met her and she offered me the job – it was very quick.
The previous head, Magda Wassef, was a critic, whereas you are chiefly a producer – what do you think this means for your approach to the festival and where it is headed?
Magda was really focused, but she had a different way of running the festival because she was much more traditional. She didn’t feel any need to start the industry side of the festival, which for me was super-important. So when I took charge, my biggest priority was to kick-start the industry side of things, and I’m doing that right away. Also, in terms of programming, things were done a little bit differently. The way Egyptian festivals used to be programmed is that people would just wait for films, or go to festivals and see movies, and then request them after seeing them. There were no travelling programmers or people based in different regions who follow films even before they’re released or screened at festivals. So we had to change that and become a little more aggressive in the way we find films. I also wanted to have more people working with us on the programming circuit internationally.
But also, it was about going back to the idea of gala and red-carpet screenings, and starting the midnight section and the VR section. We’ve also introduced cash prizes, like the Audience Award and the Best Arab Film Award. So it’s quite a big change, but I think Magda was working under very tough circumstances because she had a limited budget. She was working solely with the Ministry of Culture budget, which was tough, so this year we were lucky that we were able to raise a lot more from other sources, and that gave us some scope to really change. We were also able to change the branding of the festival, the way it was marketed, and hire higher-calibre people, whether it’s on the programming side, the industry side or even the press.
Why were the previous industry events scrapped in the first place, and what made you bring them back?
First of all, the only industry activity we had was the Cairo Film Connection, which was the co-production market. It was small and ineffective because we had hardly any support from the festival itself. I was actually consulting for the festival in trying to create that, and I was given virtually no budget. So this year, we decided to try to raise money from sponsors and find a way to make it not just a co-production market, but an entire industry platform. So we created Cairo Industry Days, which is also a forum of master classes, workshops and so on, as well as Cairo Film Connection, which is an integral part of it and which is now much bigger because it’s got $150,000 worth of grants and prizes for the 15 or 17 projects that are selected. So it’s become significantly bigger in terms of the prize money, but also in terms of the calibre of people attending, the experts, the number of people attending, and the number of projects we’ve received. We used to receive about 45-50 projects a year as submissions and select maybe 12 or 14 of them. This year, we received more than 110 and we selected 17, and it was a very tough decision.
You have worked a great deal with Europe, but what is the reception of European films like among Egyptian audiences? Is there any European region in particular they seem to have a penchant for?
In terms of films, I don’t think there’s any specific area they prefer. There’s a very small audience for international arthouse fare in Egypt. It’s the audience that goes to places like Zawya, which is the arthouse exhibition space and cinema, and it’s quite popular, but there are just one or two screens in the heart of Cairo, and there’s a small audience of a few hundred people a week who go to see these titles. So for a festival it’s a niche audience, but I can see it growing a little bit.
You have the European Panorama, for example, which is also organised by Zawya, and that’s just for European cinema. That’s very popular, and I think they have a few thousand admissions throughout the festival. The Cairo Film Festival generally has about 25,000-30,000 admissions over the course of the event, which I think is far too low considering the size of the gathering. We’re aiming for 40,000 or 50,000 this year, so if we can achieve that we’ll be quite happy. But in terms of the type of films, I think it’s really diverse, and Arab movies are obviously quite popular, in the Arab Horizons section – some films sell out a few hours before the screenings, and the second screenings are also sold out or at least well attended.
The official selection out of competition should also be well attended because there are some big films. I can see Roma being one of the highlights of the festival. It’s a great film, and I was really keen on getting it, so I was quite aggressive in trying to secure it. And also, some competition films have been well attended. Euphoria [+see also:
film profile] and Donbass [+see also:
interview: Sergei Loznitsa
film profile], two films in competition, were quite well attended, and at the gala of Unexpected Love, there were at least 600 people in the screening room, so I think all the galas will be well attended. For Egyptian films, obviously, I’m expecting at least 1,000 people in the theatre, so it varies. Egyptian films are obviously the most popular.
How has the security situation since the revolution of 2011 affected the festival in recent years? What things are you doing to help the festival recover?
I think the only thing you can do is not to have any incidents for a long time; you look at anywhere in the world, and you can see that it’s hard not to have any incidents for a long time. Incidents happen all over. More recently, it’s been transpiring that Cairo is really high in the ranks of the safest cities you can visit in the world. There was a poll published last year by the BBC, and Cairo was ranked the 16th safest city in the world, and this year it’s even higher. So considering the state of the world today, it’s actually become – relatively speaking – one of the safest places to visit. You can walk around freely, even late at night, and nobody will bother you. People are friendly – you may occasionally run into some unpleasant behaviour if you’re dressed in an inappropriate way or something, but it’s rare, and I think it’s a place where you can really come and enjoy yourself. I’m talking about Egypt in general because Cairo for me is a great city, but when I’m in Egypt, I really enjoy myself the most when I’m travelling to the Red Sea or Sinai. There’s just one small part of North Sinai that’s not safe, but the rest of Egypt is really safe.
So it’s really about getting that perception through to the media and letting people know what it’s like – that’s where a film festival can be really useful because international guests and press come here, and they communicate that to others. The opening ceremony was pretty well covered by the media, for example. There’s a great image of the country, and it just needs to be communicated. People need to get a sense of what it’s really like.
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