It was easy to make fun of the second Cairo International Film Festival. An overly ambitious undertaking by inexperienced people, it seemed to take on the characteristics of this chaotic and confusing city.
Somebody stole the press credentials, so none was issued. By the third days of the competition, only 4 of the 12 judges had appeared. Most of the entries lacked Arabic subtitles. Ursula Andress refused to hold a press conference beside the hotel pool because the wind made her eyes run.
Scheduled showings were canceled and films substituted without notice. There was an uproar in a downtown theater when hundreds of young Arabs, who turned out for the official entry of the Palestine Liberation Organization, a film about he siege of the Tal Zaatar refugee camp in Beirut got instead an Italian entry about a schoolgirl in turn-of-the-century Trieste.
The PLO film was withdrawn because of Syrian objections. The Chinese withdrew their entry from the competition after a Soviet film that had been shown in another festival was allowed in, a violation of the rules. The censor yanked a French film, "Bilities," half an hour before it was to go on. When British actor Trevor Howard, who headed the jury, handed out the "Nefertiti" statuettes to the winners, he insisted on pronouncing it to rhyme with city.
But for all that, it had its moments. The least that could be said was that it was a great improvement over last year. Egyptian journalist relished the opportunity to ask questions about film of such guests as Howard, Andress, Michael York and Marie Jose Nat. The theaters were packed with enthusiastic Egyptians grateful for anything beyond the potboilers and spaghetti westerns they usually get. And it gave some unusual and striking films an exposure to an appreciative audience they might not otherwise have reached.
As Howard said at the end, "the interest was very gratifying. It took some time, but by the end it got going. I hope it's going to continue in future years." In the first few days of the festival, he declined to be interviewed on the grounds that he did not want to offend his hosts and had nothing positive to say.
Feature films, shorts and documentaries from about 40 countries were shown over the 10 days, though for reasons of politics and logistics only 16 were considered for the grand prize, the Golden Nefertiti.
That was won by the Hungarian entry, "Epidemic," directed by Pal Gabor. Howard said the jury was "unanimous except for me" on this film, which he described as "nobles vs. peasants in the 19 the century."
Second prize went to the Dutch film "The Debut," whose star, Marina de Graap, won a special prize for "the very rare qualities of comedian already evident in so young an interpreter."
There were no prizes for the official American entries, "The Deep" and Brian DePalma's spooky "Carrie," but they were immensely popular with the audiences. There was real hysteria in the theater at the end of Carrie, with women screaming and passing out when the bloody hand emerges from Carrie's grave.
Some of the most interesting entries were offbeat films that might not be commercially successful in Europe or the U.S. but attracted good crowds during their brief exposure here.
One was "Cat On Fire," an Egyptian remake of Tennessee Williams' play "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof." Another was "Assassination of a City," a documentary about the war in Beirut by Abdullah Muheisen of Saudi Arabia. He is said to be the first director from Saudi Arabia, a country where there is no commercial cinema and public showings of movies are banned.
China sent "Operation Yangtze," a propaganda epic in color about the Red Army and courageous peasants fighting together against the Kuomintang in 1949. This is the kind of film in which the good guys all have clear eyes and perfect teeth and the bad guys are cringing and dissolute. But the Chinese have clearly learned a lot from the western commercial cinema about acting, cinematography and action sequences, and the film is not nearly so primitive as it sounds.
Gotz Hagmuller, an Austrian architect-turned-filmmaker, submitted perhaps the most unusual and memorable entry, a stunning semidocumentary entitled "The Memorable Pilgrimage of the Emperor Kanga Moussa from Mali to Mecca."
In the 14th century, when the West African country of Mali was a rich empire, Kanga Moussa led tens of thousands of his countrymen on an epic pilgrimage across Africa to Mecca. In Hagmuller's film, a contemporary descendant retraces that journey, still the subject of folk tales today. Lovingly filmed in color in Mali Morocco and Egypt, it is, Hagmuller said, "not a film about religious practice but about a pious man following his religion." He made it, he said, because "in our schoolbooks we hardly know anything about African history, hardly anything of the culture or the great kingdoms of the past."
The jury gave this film a special award for "the beauty of its images and the real interest presented by this poetical exploration of Africa."