It is film festival season in Egypt, and it is the time when lots of disgruntled people begin to express their frustration, disappointment, and dissatisfaction with these events' organisation, programming, and priorities. Many of these concerns are certainly legitimate, and indeed call for concrete action and solutions.
However, these apprehensions are largely subsidiary to the more fundamental and pressing task, one which pertains to the actual goals of these festivals, and particularly the issue of whether these festivals are genuinely interested in expanding their audience base and are working towards this goal.
By addressing this issue, film festivals in Egypt can begin to remedy many of the other chronic organisational and administrative dilemmas that they face.
In the general evaluation of the festivals, one needs to stress that many improvements have characterised the general performance of our festivals in recent years, especially in younger and newer festivals.
Above all there is progress in programming: selection committees are bringing better quality and larger variety of local as well as Arab and international films.
Also, there are some advances in choosing jury committees (although the tendency to include "stars" still supersedes experience and education). And finally, there is better professional and filmmaker presence and participation.
There is also increasing attention to creating film workshops, and specialised seminars and lectures for the public. On the other hand, there remain major technical problems when it comes to screenings and the choice of theatres.
But what continues to mar our festivals (particularly when it comes to the larger and much older ones in the big cities), is the near negligence when it comes to how they deal with the general public.
To begin, when it comes to organisational logistics, attention is overwhelmingly lopsided in favour of meeting the needs of the guests (which is important in itself), while it remains dismal (to say the least), when it comes to the general public.
Over the last two decades, there has been quantitatively consistent and clear shrinkage in the numbers of movie-goers in Egypt. While this can be partly attributed to changes in film reception technologies and media, this trend has been largely connected to a general hostile attitude towards what cinema stands for both as an entertainment and as a popular cultural practice.
On the one hand, this is enhanced by negative political and “religious” attitudes towards the medium, which has successfully relegated it to a position of inferiority in the eyes of larger segments of Egyptian society.
On the other hand, this stance has been inadvertently strengthened by the attitude of prominent elements within the film community itself, many of which have resorted to institutionalising their own form of discriminatory definition of cinema.
In this respect, some in the film community, including among festival administrators have narrowed down the definition of cinema culture to specific kinds of "artistic" films that they arbitrarily define as deserving of the designation of "real cinema”.
Such a line not only goes against what historically characterised Egyptian cinema as the most popular form of cultural interaction among Egyptians of all classes, but also indirectly relegates film to a marginal, if not negligent, position within their popular cultural practices.
Today, there is a lingering, and perhaps growing trend in film festivals in Egypt; by and large, these festivals are becoming closed to circles of organisers, media, filmmakers, producers, "stars", critics, juries, and friends to all of the above. In parallel, there is near disregard (which occasionally borders on disdain) towards the general public.
This is manifest in the logistics of public access, assistance, and service. Equally as important, and on the level of some administrative circles, there is a prevailing lack of understanding--or perhaps lack in the willingness to understand--that the main goal of any film festival is to bring a richer and more varied film culture to communities and to the people of these communities.
These problems have left the broader community cynical or, at best, indifferent about these festivals.
Over the years, restrictive entry policies, confused regulations, and in some cases sheer nepotism have turned into an entrenched exclusionary system, one which is resulting in confining festival audience to a largely elite composition. To the extent that they neglect engaging wider, newer and younger participants, much of the film festivals are stagnating when it comes to audience range within local and national communities.
Of course, there is always the good number of cinema devotees who eventually make it through the "golden gates" of these festivals. But it is the determination and the passion for film among such people, which ultimately determines their success in accessing these festivals, which they achieve in spite of numerous bureaucratic and organisational burdens and obstacles.
Historically, film festivals played a major role in bringing together a wide variety of film-goers and audiences who, for one reason or the other, are not been able to watch what they wanted to see in regular movie theatres. For others, festivals were the place where they initiated their journey through the world of cinema, and where they began to formulate their own take on what they liked in the rich gamut of film culture.
In the 1950s and 60s, Egyptian filmmakers and those who worked in the ministry of culture took films to communities in the remote areas of rural Egypt and invigorated enthusiastic discussions and debates about these films and the issues that they raised.
This practice is now history, and has been replaced by an elitist outlook which sees cinema as a privilege for those who, they claim, "understand" and "appreciate" it. If and when echoed in administrative festival circles, such narrow vision of cinema essentially rationalises restrictive attitude towards greater and wider audience participation.
In the early years of the Toronto International Film Festival (when it was still called the "Festival of Festivals") in the late 1970s and early 80s, I recall when, as a young student volunteer, I used to walk with friends through entire neighbourhoods of the city to circulate our programme to people who never heard of the festival and what it was doing. We talked with people and discussed why it was important that they came to the festival.
Over the years, the festival grew to what it is today; the largest film festival in the world. Attracting the big names to our "red carpet" was never our main preoccupation.
Building our audiences and listening to what they wanted and suggested, however, was indeed a main goal for us. The big stuff all came later and followed after the festival solidified its audience base and after it grew from a few hundred to tens of thousands in less than five years.
In later years, and as part of the team running the Calgary International Film Festival during its foundation years between 2000 and 2004, one of our main tasks was, once again, to increase and build our audience. Reaching out to the broadest sections of our community was a priority.
In other words, filling those seats for every film that we showed was a top priority, against which we measured our success and our failure. The festival now attracts over 35,000 people, in a city with less than one million.
In other words, public audience numbers are critical. Furthermore, they are indicative of whether a festival is doing what it is supposed to do for the community at large. These numbers in our local and national Egyptian festivals remain way under actual potentials.
Festivals in the major cities of Cairo and Alexandria (with populations of over 20 and 4 million people respectively), stagnate in their attraction of thousands of audience members instead of the tens of thousands expected in such a populous environment.
Aside from the films that get a lopsided publicity and attention from critics and organisers alike, most film screenings play to near empty theatres, and in most cases invited filmmakers have almost nobody to discuss their films with.
Just as I was putting the final touches on this article, I was told that films that were listed in the programme were indeed shown, but the screening was not actually open to the public!
Nevertheless, over the last three years, some "brave" organisers in existing and burgeoning festivals, have been quite pro-active in the attempt to reverse what I will now describe as the "poor attendance syndrome" (I will not delve into details here for fear of personalising the issue).
In this respect, one needs to see the increased and conscious awareness of this problem among some festival directorships, and this resulting in some noticeable and welcome changes and successes.
Therefore, a strategy based on a well-planned and consistent audience growth is critical to the development of national and local film festival culture in Egypt. While there are many objective factors that indeed contribute to the case of poor attendance (political, ideological, cultural, etc.), there remain lots of other subjective and self-imposed problems that play into this dilemma.
Most importantly, there is need for systemic community outreach plans on the grassroots level, and through a well-developed and un-patronising publicity plans and campaigns, particularly within heavily populated sections of local city neighborhoods. Most importantly, people should feel wanted and at home in these festivals.
Moving beyond the screens of our Facebook friends and internet screens, and taking our publicity to the streets where real people live is fundamental in a community which still largely depends on, and respects direct interpersonal contact.
There are thousands of volunteers out there who are willing to help in such task; and it is our collective responsibility, as a film community, to ensure that this task is no longer relegated to the backburner of the organisational goals of festival administrations.