There were constant reminders of Egypt’s volatile political situation throughout the sixth Cairo International Women’s Film Festival. The entrance to Falaki Theatre, which hosted many of the festival’s screenings and its closing ceremony, is unmarked, well secured and directly in front of a high concrete wall abruptly blocking the road—one of many erected by security forces in downtown Cairo to restrict access by protesters to various government buildings and foreign embassies.
Other films were shown at the American University in Cairo buildings directly off Mohammed Mahmoud street, a thoroughfare which links Tahrir Square to the Interior Ministry and has been the site of numerous protests and clashes over the past three years. Walls of the schools, shops and burnt-out buildings along its route are adorned with murals and graffiti illustrating Egypt's revolutionary history.
Almost inevitably, events intruded onto the festival’s operations more directly, too. Demonstrations held to mark the two-year anniversary of the deaths of more than 40 protesters at the hands of security forces on November 19th, 2011, shut down the university campus for a day and put its venues out of action.
It was the latest incident in a truly tumultuous year. June saw the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically-elected government and since then, more than 1,000 supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi have been killed in confrontations with the police and army. The security situation, along with the economy, has continued to deteriorate. As a result, many big-name cultural events, including the Cairo International Film festival, have been cancelled. Instead of postponing, however, organizers of the far less well-known CIWFF decided to make 2013 its largest year yet. “We felt that these kinds of festivals are much more important in moments of crisis,” says Amal Ramsis, festival founder and director. “We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, we never do in Egypt now, especially in Cairo… But we feel it’s important for people to watch films, especially these kinds of films, so we took that risk and we are very happy with it.”
"We felt that these kinds of festivals are much more important in moments of crisis."
Being able to go ahead at all was by no means certain, however. As late as September, it was still unclear if it would be possible to raise the required funding.
Thanks to sponsorship obtained primarily from various embassies, the show went on, and the number of films screened more than doubled from 2012 (35 versus 14), while several workshops and roundtables were also held. “In this kind of time, either you disappear or you are bigger,” says Ramsis. “We struggled to be bigger.”
Directors came from as far afield as Spain, Palestine, Lebanon and Holland, but security concerns—a number of governments still advise against travel to parts of Egypt—meant that many others stayed away.
Dutch writer and director Threes Anna, whose Silent City was voted ‘Best Film’ by audience members, was there to accept her prize in person. Having first visited Egypt in 1984, she says she had no concerns about attending. “I wasn’t worried at all, in fact, I was excited, although most people didn’t dare to come.” She adds that negative media coverage likely scared many of her peers away from an event that she sees as genuinely important both nationally and regionally. “It’s a fantastic festival. It’s a festival made by very courageous women, who went against the stream and made it with very high-quality films in a very important moment.”
Asked whether women’s cinema in Egypt has a particular significance, Anna replies with a vehement 'yes'. “Just look around you”, she says, gesturing towards the streets surrounding Falaki Theatre.
Mona Eldaief, a Cairo-born director who was working in Egypt during the 2011 revolution, agrees. “There’s a huge importance for women’s cinema in Egypt. There’s so much that a film can accomplish and change it can make. At the very basic level, it creates dialogue and awareness and a sort of inspiration. For a lot of women filmmakers that I know—possibly those that grew up between a Western country and Egypt—it’s our duty to make films about these issues.”
Despite the monumental changes of the past two and a half years, a recent poll from the Thomson Reuters Foundation concluded that Egypt is the worst country for women in the Arab world. Locally, many criticized the methodology, but the poor status of women’s rights was emphasized by the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2013, which ranked Egypt 125th out of 136 countries.
Ramsis, who is also a writer and director, has little time for such studies. “I don’t feel that I am an oppressed women and I don’t feel like the women who make films here are oppressed,” she says, adding that the problems facing women filmmakers in Egypt are the same as they are the world over, such as overcoming stereotypical views about the kinds of films that women should make and the subjects they should tackle.
For her, and her colleagues, the festival is a meeting point and opportunity for women filmmakers from the Arab world and further afield to exchange ideas and experiences with each other, as well as with members of the public from all sections of society. To help achieve this, screenings are free of charge and feature Arabic subtitles. This is not the norm in Egypt, where many similar events only cater to English speakers. The festival audience is very different as a result and includes monolingual Arabic speakers and those who might not usually be able to afford to attend.
Attracting this kind of diverse crowd is essential in order to communicate the festival’s mission as broadly as possible and help shape the dialogue on Egypt’s future, Ramsis says. “Women’s cinema here presents another perspective of reality, one that needs to be seen. That is, how women think in the normal daily life. This is very important because it needs to be a part of the social debate which is necessary in Egypt at this moment across the whole country.”