Veteran Producer Talks Cairo's Ambitious Festival Reboot

Roger Anis
"We had to bring in new people and get them to share their knowledge and also learn things from the old team," says Hefzy, who was photographed on Jan. 31 at his office in Cairo.

Mohamed Hefzy, the Arab Cinema Center's Personality of the Year, discusses his first festival edition in charge, the trials of convincing its old guard of the need for an industry focus, and what he's been missing about being away from his producer's chair.

Already among the most prolific filmmakers in the Middle East, with his Cairo-based Film Clinic banner producing a steady flow of highly-regarded and edgy Egyptian titles — such as the Cannes-bowing Clash and Yomeddine — last year Mohamed Hefzy was handed the keys to one of the region’s oldest film festivals.

First established in 1976, the Cairo Film Festival had recently hit something of a rut, with an ever-changing management team alongside falling audience figures and little interest generated outside of Egypt. But the demise of the Dubai Film Festival, which came apart in early 2018 after establishing itself as the local hotspot over some 14 years, has left a major hole for regional filmmakers, one that Hefzy, as CIFF’s newly-appointed president, wants to help fill.

As the Arab Cinema Center’s 2019 Arab Cinema Personality of the Year honoree, presented by The Hollywood Reporter, Hefzy discusses his first festival edition in charge, the trials of convincing its old guard of the need for an industry focus, and what he’s been missing about being away from his producer’s chair.

How was your first time at the helm of the Cairo Film Festival?

It was hectic! And a lot of work. I was learning as I was going along. But I think it worked out really well. There are things we can work on to make better, but it’s a good learning curve.

And you’re definitely going to stick around? This isn’t a one-off?

I think I’m going to stick around for at least another year and see what happens. I’ve always said I think this festival needs a three-year transitional phase until it is able to stand on a solid foundation. If you look at Dubai, what was great about it was that it really was a major industry event. That’s what I’m trying to position Cairo as and I think that’ll take a couple of years more to really happen in a big way.

How did the new industry focus at the festival go this year?

It was probably one of the more successful aspects, because not only was it well attended with well-respected people, but the audience, the professionals and those who were taking part really felt that it was nothing like they’d experience at the festival before. It was never at that level. We had great speakers, great discussions on the panel, masterclasses at a very high level, and three workshops. We had about 150 international guests.

What do you think it will take to fill the hole left by Dubai?

I think it’s going to have to attract more international guests that wish to come, not simply because they were invited, but because it’s a necessary stop in the festival calendar, especially if you have an interest in producing or co-producing in the region. I think that’s what Dubai was doing. Cairo just needs a bit more time for people to know about it, to take an interest. We had prize money of $120,000, actually more, about $140,000 if you count things like the colour-grading services. And that figure is actually comparable to Dubai.

Cairo is one of the world’s oldest film fests. Was it difficult to steer it in a newer direction?

It is difficult because you have to convince people to learn new ways. The festival has a team of more than 30 that have been working there, some for more than 15-20 years. So they’re used to things a certain way. The festival was really just about showing films and having a few discussions or Q&As, and for the past few years it’s been suffering because the audience levels have been dropping considerably. We had to explain that festivals now play a different role. You’re not just bringing the best cinema to your city, but you’re also enabling and empowering local filmmakers and connecting people. This is just as important as showing films. So we had to bring in new people and get them to share their knowledge and also learn things from the old team. So it was an exchange of information. And it was hard, because sometimes they didn’t see eye to eye. The old guard has a skepticism of new ways and vice versa. So it was difficult, but I think it worked well.

Netflix has already started investing in Middle East content. How has this impacted the industry?

It’s an interesting time. There’s so much interest in the region now, with Netflix and now Amazon Prime starting to look into local-language content and they’re going to start really working on that starting March of this year. I guess Facebook and Apple will follow and do the same. We’ve also got MBC Shahid and Vuclip and a bunch of different platforms that we can go to, and it’s great because it liberates us from Arab TV, which has just been on the decline.

How have you found juggling being a producer and heading up the festival?

It’s been difficult, because I had to give up my role as producer. This doesn’t mean that my name is not on anything, it just means I can’t be as hands on as I used to be. So I had to hire people to play that role. It kept me from the pleasure of doing the job as producer, developing material, going to the edit, being on set, working with the talent really close. I miss those things. I’m starting to do all that now that I’ve finished the last festival and I have maybe a few months to focus on producing one or two projects, and at the same time prepare the broad strokes for what we want to do for 2019. But from about Cannes to November it really becomes difficult to do anything else. So I guess I get to be producer for six months of the year.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 8 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.