CAIRO — In a move that has baffled Egyptian cinephiles, the board of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) revoked its invitation to the film In The Last Days of the City on Tuesday. The film, directed by Tamer El Said and starring Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner, United 93) had been invited to have its Middle East–North African premiere as part of the festival’s international competition. The revoking of the invitation came about through a disagreement on the terms of the film’s inclusion. Both parties released statements on Tuesday.
Ten years in the making, In the Last Days of the City is a ruminative, semi-autobiographical work about a man trying to make a film about his hometown, Cairo. Filmed amid and set before, during, and after the revolution and the ravages of post-Mubarak Egypt, the piece is of intense interest to its local audience, particularly the independent cultural scene of Downtown Cairo, of which El Said is a member. The notoriously perfectionist director is a co-founder of the cinema institute Cimatheque, one of the few independent cultural institutions still holding together a precarious existence in the face of unprecedented pressures from the state. In these conditions, the long gestation of In the Last Days of the City has almost been an in-joke in Cairo; so when it came out to critical acclaim at its world premiere at the Berlinale — where it received the Caligari Film Prize — the anticipation to see this deeply personal piece at home intensified even more.
In a statement on Facebook, the film’s production company, Zero Productions, said: “Firm in our belief that Cairo is the best place in the Arab region for our film to be released for the first time— being the city that beats at the heart of our film—we have turned down invitations to take part in major film festivals in the Middle East and North Africa.”
The disagreement stems from exactly how many non-MENA screenings the film would have prior to its MENA premiere at CIFF. The film had initially been invited to the parallel program, “Prospects of Arab Cinema,” but El Said requested it go into the international competition. In the negotiations, the statement made by CIFF claims that Zero Productions had mentioned “only three or four” prior screenings, yet had ended up with “nearly ten.” In a phone call to me, CIFF’s press representative was unable to confirm whether or not the stated number had been confirmed in writing, or what exact number — “nearly ten” — is. Whatever it is, it’s too many for CIFF.
Both on the phone and in its statement, the festival has been at pains to point out that it is “one of the 14 film festivals around the world that have been accorded a category ‘A’ status by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations.” CIFF consequently considers MENA premieres small fry and looks for even more exclusivity in accordance with its status.
“A selection committee has to have its criteria, beyond the number of prior screenings,” Youssef Shazly, of the film’s distributor Zawya, told me. “For all of us, that was a very strange decision, now that we understand that it comes from the discrepancy in how many [prior screenings] were supposedly agreed to … it’s a bit pathetic.”
As Khalid Abdalla pointed out in a Facebook statement, “By that logic, Cairo INTERNATIONAL film festival encourages Egyptian films to forego all opportunities for international screenings until they have premiered nationally at the very end of the year in which they premiere, thus being more INTERNATIONAL?!”
As filmmaker Ahmad Abdalla (Microphone, Rags & Tatters) explained to me in a telephone conversation, CIFF is a historically important institution in Egypt. “Much of my cinema education came from this every year,” he said, describing how the festival used to cover much of the city, would pull in large crowds from all classes, and had numerous Arabic and English publications devoted to it. “But year after year it started to fade, becoming smaller and smaller.” Abdalla has served on a previous advisory committee tasked with revamping the festival under its previous director in 2013 and 2014. Today, the festival is held in five venues across the city.
The decision to revoke the invitation of In the Last Days of the City was met with widespread disappointment, but also a certain resignation in the face of an all-too-recognizable tension between state-sponsored projects and independent practitioners. “This represents everything about Egypt,” says Ahmad Abdalla. “All Egyptians try to control the younger generation.” Or, as writer and curator Alexandra Stock put it succinctly to me: “Tall poppy syndrome at work here.”
“As a viewer, I really don’t care [about where else the film has been screened],” Ahmad Abdalla added. “I just want to see the film in my city — so if those people are really interested in cinema, they would take the films regardless, and not just look for glory.”