This year’s Cairo International Film Festival marked the 40th edition of the oldest cinematic showcase in the Arab and African world. Featuring 196 films from 59 countries, it proved to be an impressively diverse and eclectic mix of world cinema. The bigger films on show included some of the best offerings of the past twelve months, including Spike Lee’s exuberant true-life tale of a black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, in BlackKklansman, which was released in Australia back in August.
Credit should go to CIFF artistic director Youssef Cherif Rizkallah, who clearly has an eye for the original. Among them was Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, starring Nicole Kidman in a jaw-dropping role. Kidman plays Erin Bell, an ageing rogue Los Angeles detective to whom time has not been kind. From the opening shot, as a bleary-eyed Erin wakes up in her car, Kidman is almost unrecognisable as a cop on the trail of a criminal from her past. With a script that echoes Memento in its structural complexity, it’s a film to wrestle with.
Another transformative performance comes at the heart of Matthew Heineman’s excellent A Private War. A biography of real-life journalist Marie Colvin, the American-born war correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Times, English actress Rosamund Pike stars. She offers up an extreme turn as a woman who spent her life reporting from conflict zones ranging from Kosovo to Sri Lanka – where she lost an eye – to Syria. With Jamie Dornan as Colvin’s photographer and Tom Hollander – who appeared on the red carpet in Cairo – as her editor, it’s an impressively detailed, authentic work from Heineman.
Also playing was Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, which has been touring the festival circuit since it played in Venice where it won Willem Dafoe the Best Actor award. Due to be released in Australia in February, this rough-edged but heartfelt portrait of the painter Vincent Van Gogh follows his final years as he moves to Arles in southern France, befriends Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) and enters into a furious period of work. It is, of course, the time when he also becomes his most unstable, something Dafoe conveys with great humanity.
Peter Farrelly’s awards-bait tale Green Book also featured. The film won the People’s Choice Award when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and it’s been picking up prizes wherever it’s played ever since. A true story, it deals with a real-life African-American concert pianist (played by Moonlight Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali) and his racist Italian-American driver (Viggo Mortensen) who toured the divided Deep South in the 1960s. Like a modern-day Driving Miss Daisy in reverse, it’s a genuine feel-good film that will hit Australian screens in January.
The biggest star of the festival was undoubtedly British actor Ralph Fiennes, who arrived in town for The White Crow, his third film as director. It wasn’t his first time in Cairo – in fact, he’d been over the summer, he told a press conference, to take in the marvelous Egyptian museum just yards away from the festival’s Opera House hub. But this time he was here on professional duty, presenting his film and participating in an engaging masterclass that saw him discuss his esteemed movie career, from his days as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights to the evil Voldermort in the Harry Potter series.
As for The White Crow, it’s arguably his most accomplished and ambitious film yet. Shot partly in Serbia, Fiennes takes on the story of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev (a magnetic Oleg Ivenko) leading to his defection from the Soviet Union when he was a young man. As well as directing, Fiennes plays the volatile Nureyev’s tutor Pushkin, a man who resists the overtures of this brilliant young dancer. With around fifty percent of the film in Russian – Fiennes even speaks his dialogue in the language – it’s a fine achievement.
Meanwhile, the International Competition saw sixteen films scrutinised by a jury headed up by the esteemed director Bille August, who also brought his most recent work, Danish period drama A Fortunate Man to the festival. The big winner on the night was A Twelve-Year-Night, a harrowing story about three members of the Tupamaro urban guerrillas imprisoned during Uruguay’s military dictatorship in 1973. Held in solitary confinement for a dozen years, they were shipped between 40 prisons.
At the awards ceremony, Álvaro Brechner, the film’s writer-director, was on hand to collect the Golden Pyramid for Best Film as well as the FIPRESCI critics’ prize, and seemed genuinely moved by his double success. The Silver Pyramid was awarded to Thai director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng for his film Manta Ray, an unnerving refugee tale. From the UK, first-time feature director Jamie Jones collected the Bronze Pyramid for Obey, a drama set during the London riots of 2011.
Meanwhile, the excellent Birds of Passage claimed the Nagulib Mahfouz prize for Best Screenplay for Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal. Co-directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, who made the much-admired Embrace of the Serpent, this story spans over a decade as it tells of the rise of the Wayuu clans in northern Colombia, as they begin to export marijuana. Paying heed to the customs and traditions of the clans, it’s far removed from the bloody cartel dramas like Narcos that have sunk into the public consciousness.
Best Actress went to Hungarian film One Day’s female lead Zśofia Szamosi, which follows 24 hours in the life of a mother caught between her work and homelife. And there was a huge cheer for Egyptian actor Sherif Desoky who claimed Best Actor for Ahmad Abdalla El Sayed’s EXT. Night. The story follows three characters across Cairo as they spend a night on the town, with Dosoky playing a hyperactive driver.
Among the tributes, British director Peter Greenaway was presented with the Faten Hamama Honorary Award. The director, famed for The Pillow Book, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Prospero’s Books, also gave a masterclass, discussing his varied and versatile career. Revered Egyptian actor Hassan Hosny was also honoured, while the festival programmed an eclectic range of strands to dive into – among them, a look at Virtual Reality cinema, a tribute to novelist Ihsan Abdul Quddous and a focus on Russian cinema.
Most intriguingly, the festival staged a section celebrating the work of eight Arab female directors, including such films as 3000 Nights by Palestinian director Mao Masri and Sharp Tools from the UAE’s Nujoom Alghanem. A panel entitled ‘Wonder Women’ also invited several female Arab filmmakers to talk over their experiences; in an industry where female directors have struggled to be heard, it was heartening to see an under-represented voice given such a platform.