Thanks to Israeli director, Egyptian filmmakers boycott festival

Louise Sarant

The sixth annual short-film festival at the French Cultural Center in Cairo (CFCC), “Recontres de l’Image,” started out with 49 screenings. That number has now dropped to 17 after the jury, composed of three Egyptian directors and actors, pulled out of the competition and a number of Egyptian short films followed them.

The catalyst for the mass exodus from the festival was the inclusion of the film Almost Normal, directed by Keren Ben Raphael, an Israeli director who studies at the prestigious French cinema school La Fémis, whose students have contributed films to the competition.

The seven-day program for the festival had already been widely distributed when Ahmed Atef, a film critic, director and jury member resigned from his position two weeks ago after discovering that one of the participants was Israeli. Atef issued a statement outlining his position and received the complete support of the Cinema Syndicate.

“The participation of a film by an Israeli filmmaker is completely unacceptable,” said Shoukry Abu Emiera, the secretary general of the Cinema Syndicate. “Any Egyptian artist who travels to Israel or participates in an Israeli production–given the atrocities that Israel commits on a daily basis–is boycotted by the syndicate.”

Initially, in an attempt to “save” the festival, in the words of CFCC head Jean-Pierre Debaere, the center announced that the “offending” film would be withdrawn.

Almost Normal tells the story of Shai, an Israeli boy in Tel Aviv who is about to turn 12 and wishes for a normal birthday, which is tainted every year by the anniversary of his grandfather’s death.

The decision to withdraw Almost Normal was revoked on the order of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Debaere explains that “the Ministry considered it inconceivable not to screen this film because of the director’s nationality.”

Admitting that the retraction of his initial first statement was very “embarrassing,” Debaere also stressed that the reaction from Ahmed Atef and other Egyptian participants “came as a total surprise for us, because other Israeli movies had been screened at the center before and were never stigmatized like this short film is.”

The Wall, by French-Israeli director Simone Bitton about the erection of the wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians was screened at the CFCC in 2006 and 2007. Abraham Segal’s documentary La Politique de Dieu (God’s Politics), was shown in 2008. These two full-length films produced by Israelis did not cause a stir when they were screened at the CFCC.

But since Ahmed Atef resigned from the jury, the decision to boycott the CFCC’s festival has snowballed as more and more directors have pulled out, with the support of the Cinema Syndicate. Those who didn’t pull out immediately may have felt pressure to.

Asser Yassin, a young Egyptian actor, assured that his decision to leave the arbitration committee was not influenced by the Cinema Syndicate. “It has nothing to do with Keren Ben Raphael’s nationality. I left the jury because I discovered on her CV that she served in the Israeli army, which I consider a terrorist organization,” he said.

Raphael spent a year and nine months in mandatory service with the Israeli army in a film unit where she edited and directed instructional films.

Kamla Abu Zekry, director and jury member, also withdrew her participation, saying that “for the past 30 years I have seen on TV children and people in Palestine killed by Israelis.”

She describes her move as a personal decision and a simple statement to condemn the atrocities that are committed against Palestinians. Questioned on the delicate and sensitive topic of “cultural normalization” between Egypt and Israel, Abu Zekry replied that “a dialogue will not be possible before Israel ceases to be a terrorist country.”

The festival, which was originally scheduled to run for seven days, will now take place over two and will present a selection of French and Romanian short films, cartoons and documentaries. Almost Normal will be screened on the first day of the festival.

On Thursday, 8 April at 8 pm the CFCC will screen five short-films and a cartoon all directed by La Fémis students. On Friday, 9 April at 7 pm the CFCC will screen a cartoon, nine short-films from France and Romania and a documentary.

Additional reporting by Waleed Marzouk.

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