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Cairo International Film Festival President Shares on the Region’s Most Distinguished Celebration of Cinema

Dorra Zarrouk at the 2018 Cairo International Film Festival.

With tremendous responsibility weighing on his shoulders, every morning Mohamed Hefzy purposefully walks the same long corridor, quietly greeting the vintage posters occupying every wall. The member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was reinstated in his position as the festival’s president ahead of it 41st edition, which kicks off on November 20. While he started calling it his office only a year ago, the Cairo international film festival’s headquarters is a loyal corroborator. It shares stories of the past four decades with tokens from the industry’s (CIFF) milestones nodding nostalgically at the newest president everywhere he looks. In his spacious office, the producer, writer, and filmmaker – who has more than 80 international awards under his belt – sits behind a glass table, covered with research papers, lists, and action plans. At only a year older than the region’s oldest film festival, Hefzy is an interesting choice, bringing the promise of a fresh perspective. “One of the earliest editions I attended was in the late 1990s. I vividly remember seeing Oliver Stone on stage giving a speech. A few years later, Nicolas Cage attended the festival and stopped at a venue where I was DJing at the time. He came to my booth and told me that he liked my music. Needless to say, it was a big moment for me,” Hefzy shares.

Mohamed Hefzy. Supplied

A man of many hats, Hefzy has been an essential part of nearly 30 feature films in Egypt, the US, the UK, and the Arab world, including Clash, which was chosen as the opening film of the Un Certain Regard category at the Cannes film festival, and Yomeddine, which was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes film festival. Due to the commercial and critical success of his movies, Hefzy has taken part in a number of prestigious film festivals – including Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, and Toronto. As the youngest president in the history of CIFF, Hefzy did not think twice about accepting the challenge to build on the festival’s successes and bring back its glory days.

As one of only 15 festivals in the world given competitive status by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations, making CIFF the only internationally accredited annual film festival in the Arab world, Africa, and the Middle East. “CIFF has been through a lot of difficult times and mismanagement caused by the country’s political and economic changes,” Hefzy says. “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.” This heritage enables CIFF to connect the regional audience with cinema and the Arab film industry, as well as with the rest of the world. The 40th edition, held in November last year, signaled the beginning of a new era by focusing on creating a more sophisticated infrastructure for Arab cinema through nurturing the industry and filmmakers. After making the decision to no longer spend money on bringing in international guests, Hefzy invested in two new concepts instead: Cairo Industry Days, a platform for industry discussions, meetings, workshops, masterclasses, and partnership opportunities, as well as the virtual reality section, celebrating a new form of cinema. “One of the proudest moments for me was holding a masterclass with Nicolas Seydoux, president of the oldest film company in the world, Gaumont,” Hefzy shares. Hefzy also wants to develop the idea that virtual reality cinema is a genre of art and not just a gimmick. “We are considering developing it into a full competition in the future. We aim to encourage local producers to experiment and make VR films because at this stage it is rare to find people in the Arab world who give a full chance to this genre. We are the only Arab festival that features it.”

The dynamic president has a three-year plan to reinvent the festival in a way that will connect it further with the international community and local audiences, as well as making it more relevant to the industry. “For this year’s edition, we are planning an exciting lineup with many gala screenings. More importantly, we are targeting a surprising international world premiere; something that has not happened at CIFF for many years.”

Originally published in the fall/winter issue 2019 of Vogue Man Arabia

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