Cairo fest has plenty of company now

Several Arab nations have started their own festivals

CAIRO -- Ezzat Abou-Ouf, a charismatic Egyptian actor and president of the Cairo International Film Festival, was chain-smoking his way through a pile of paperwork while submitting to a one-on-one interview when he was peremptorily summoned to his next appointment.

He stopped mixing mint tea and quickly made his way to the lobby of the swank Sofitel El Gezirah hotel for lunch with foreign festival reporters, which caught us both unaware. It's a point established as he re-arranged his pink shirt, made of the finest Egyptian cotton, and smoothed his graying hair.

"I had no idea about this lunch," I mumbled, somewhat perturbed by the general chaos surrounding most activities in the Egyptian capital. Then Abou-Ouf's cinematic voice and seductive smile filled the elevator: "Me neither," he replied, tossing his cigarette into a plastic planted pot and striding in to greet his guests.

For most of its 32-year history, the Cairo Film Festival was the only game in town -- and by town I mean the entire Mideast. This latest edition, which included a focus on Islam in world cinema as well as spotlights on Spain and African film, unspooled Nov. 18-28. But in recent years, a growing number of wealthy Arab nations have swapped shopping at Harrods for an item no department store can deliver: a film festival of their own.

Recent additions include the Marrakech International Film Festival, now in its eighth year; the 2-year-old Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi; the Tribeca Film Festival Doha, which will launch in November; and the Dubai International Film Festival, which begins its fifth installment Thursday.

In a mark of the business savvy and deep pockets behind these new Arabian knights, Dubai's organizers coddle their guests from the moment they land on the buzzing Gulf state's tarmac to the moment they leave -- and they make sure the opening ceremony is not too long. That's good news for guests expected at this year's edition, which runs through Dec. 18; they include Goldie Hawn, Brendan Fraser, Nicolas Cage and Salma Hayek. Sharon Stone also will be on hand to lead more stars to the desert for a Dubai amfAR auction to raise money for AIDS research, and top Hollywood agents are due for conferences and the first Dubai Film Market.

Another Stone, Oliver, will open the event with a screening of "W." The film about George Bush plays into the original idea behind the Dubai event of building a bridge through culture in a post-9/11 world.

"Dubai, with its 200 nationalities, is the best place to do this," Dubai festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma says. "From the Arab and Muslim point of view, we wanted to tell who we were, not have people say who we were. We thought instead of bridging that gap from a political point of view, why not do it from a medium of cinema?"

However well-meaning, these festivals also serve and rely upon a display of wealth.

"We welcome more Arab festivals alongside ours because it gives more of an opportunity for people to know about Arab films," Abou-Ouf said. "But it all comes down to money. We didn't even have sponsorship in Cairo when I arrived three years ago."

With major oil dollars being splashed around at these events, Abou-Ouf has his work cut out for him. Abu Dhabi is throwing around millions of dollars in prize money alone; oil profits also are likely to flow into the newest addition to the Arab festival scene in Doha, Qatar.

Despite the competition for films, stars and money, the one cause that unites these festivals is showcasing Arab films.

Dubai has two dedicated sections for Arab films: the Arabian Nights and the Muhr Awards for Excellence in Arab Cinema; Palestinian films featured prominently in the selection of Arab films shown in Cairo, with "Laila's Birthday" sharing the prize for the best Arab film.

And when it comes to international relations, it would be hard to beat the impact of watching the mix of cultures gathered onstage on the closing night of the Cairo fest in the grand Opera House.

The winners included "Basra," from Egypt's Ahmed Rashwan; Jan Verheyen's "Cut Loose," from Belgium; "Dancers," from Denmark's Pernille Fischer Christensen; and Chus Gutierrez's "Return to Hansala," from Spain.

In this same spirit of global bonhomie, actress Mira Sorvino was moved to exclaim that she had found a role model in Egypt's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, for her espousal of charitable causes.
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