Wasted opportunities: An overview of the Luxor Egyptian and European Film Festival

LUXOR — And so begins a new age; one in which Egypt would again emerge as the cinema capital of the region. Or, at least, that was the idea.

There seemed to be an understanding, almost a promise even, among the nation’s leading filmmakers, that the end of the Mubarak era and its bumbling bureaucracy would also be the end of the humiliation we had been imposing on ourselves for years through the Cairo and Alexandria International Film Festivals: shambolic affairs that often seemed intent on mocking, rather than celebrating, the medium and its invited artists.

Adding to this sense of promise were last year’s National Cinema Center reforms, which sought to remove the matter of festival organization from the Culture Ministry’s highly incompetent paws, and instead offer it to non-governmental organizations which would bid for the job. Faced with an unprecedented degree of freedom, various NGO’s, collaborators, and individuals came forward with proposals.

The results can be seen in the Luxor Egyptian and European Film Festival, the first of its kind, and the second inaugural film festival to be held in Luxor this year alone.

On the surface of it, though, this new age looks a lot like the last one: the Luxor festival, which took place between 17 and 22 September, was unorganized, predictably chaotic, and a sadly familiar case of modest ambition sunken by less than meager capabilities.

The opening night ceremony took place on a faded and heavily-scarred stage at the Luxor Culture Palace, a venue so under-equipped for the occasion that the sound for the opening film, the 2011 “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” (available on DVD since mid-July), was rendered incoherent by what seemed to be portable speakers.

The festivities themselves were minimal; save for some strips of faded black cloth and a clear plastic podium, the stage remained bare, even during the night’s sole performance, a traditional dance featuring three young women. The rest of the festival’s events—those open to the public—unfolded just as patchily, and to a far lower attendance than the couple of hundred that managed to squeeze into the Culture Palace’s auditorium.

Festival director Magda Wassef points to the financial difficulties, both expected and unexpected, which her team has been forced to deal with as the primary factor behind any of the event’s flaws.

“We have had financial problems since day one,” she admits from behind a desk in her shared office, a hotel room in the Luxor Sonesta, minus its single bed. Besides the headline-making news of the Culture Ministry’s last minute pullout, which left the festival’s team with only a third of the funds they had been promised, the prominent film critic and veteran of various roles at a number of international film festivals has had to deal with the usual hurdles, citing problems with flight arrangements and the printing of promotional materials, to name but a few.

“The pressure,” she sighs, one hand pressing a cell-phone against her ear while the other reaches for the ringing desk phone, “has been enormous.”

However, there’s no clear reason as to why money should be the root of mistakes as minor, yet as cringe-worthy, as consistently printing out important notices for the festival’s international guests in Arabic, or the complete failure at starting any prescheduled event on time, or even close to it. Similarly, there’s no good excuse for the fact that the majority of the city’s small population seemed unaware of the festival, or worse yet, outside its desired demographic, nor, conversely, for how unprepared the organizational team was for some of the event’s requirements, even in the absence of the crowds they had sought to attract. Case in point: this reporter was contacted mid-festival and asked to moderate an open discussion the following morning, with a Finnish director whose film would be screened prior to the event. While there’s nothing wrong about a festival inviting guest speakers and moderators, the manner in which the whole process unfolded left a lot to be desired on this reporter’s part, and it should have on the festival’s as well, but the fact that it didn’t serves as an indication in and of itself.

The overarching problem generally shared by Egyptian film festivals is not so much a lack of imagination, as it is the mismanaging of what little imagination there is. Problems with a lack of promotional material, for example, could have been overcome with a little creativity, such as cloth banners over the courtyards by the heavily-visited temples, or hand-painted advertisements on the sides of the countless horse-drawn carriages clattering through the city — all suggestions made to Egypt Independent by Luxor residents.

Instead, what few posters existed were hung in either the most obvious of places — such as the screening venues, or the hotels housing the festival’s guests and organizers — or the most obscure.

Even more frustrating was the fact that the festival actually hired a team of graffiti artists to create promotional murals around the city; an inspired move hampered by a poor choice of locations: again, the most noticeable murals were those closest to the festival’s center of activity; and of the 100 Luxor residents Egypt Independent interviewed, only fourteen had claimed to have seen them, with about half of that number adding they “weren’t able to figure out” what the murals were about.

Or, as overheard by several of the audience members during a screening at the Luxor Conference Center on the festival’s second night, “why didn’t they hold the opening ceremony here instead?” — echoed by spontaneous suggestions such as “or along the Nile,” and, “or by one of the temples,” — all good ideas, as must have been recognized by the organizational team that planned separate screenings in such locations.

But the inaugural ceremony, the “official” start to the festival was instead held at the most appropriate “official” venue, the state-owned Culture “Palace,” despite its being an unremarkable, bare-walled building, far removed from any of the city’s numerous sights.

The answer isn’t to aim low, it’s to aim realistically. Why go for an unattainable sense of grandeur, when you have the resources to pull off intimate, and fun, especially in a city like Luxor?

Egyptian film festivals have always tended to be affairs of questionable style over substance, where behind the scenes, the selection of films takes a backseat to which celebrities should be invited and what kind of wonderful touristy excursions they’ll be herded on when they get here. It was common practice for organizers to spend criminal amounts of money, time, and effort on bloated song-and-dance numbers for their festival’s opening ceremony while skimping on things like hiring bi-lingual staff members capable of communicating with an international guest list. In that respect, the Luxor festival set a solid example with the aforementioned sole performance on their opening night, which was understated, entrancing, and the only act in any Egyptian film festival witnessed by this reporter that seemed to bear at least some relevance to the context in which it was being performed. The rest of the event, however, was not blessed with the same grace, and only detracted from the dance by making it seem like the most that could be done under the circumstances.

Yet, it has to be said that the Luxor festival was not a failure. In fact, given the organization’s limited resources, it’s close to a miracle they managed to pull it off at all. However, it also has to be said that the whole ordeal was, in some ways, a wasted opportunity. What could have been a chance at truly revamping a tarnished image, at connecting with local audiences, and rebooting specific sensibilities and outdated practices, ended up strangely aspiring to be the same old thing Egyptian audiences have learned to ignore over the years.

For better or worse, whatever type of festival it becomes depends largely on the type of funding — if any — they might receive.

Following the disappointment that came from relying on the Culture Ministry to keep its promises, Wassef and her team are now reconsidering their options, with a view that one would hope will extend to aspects beyond mere funding.

“We’ll have to start reevaluating our sources and looking in new directions,” she says.  “We’re going to have to start thinking creatively.”

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