Film Scouts Diaries

1995 Cairo Film Festival Diaries
"Citizen X" On The Nile

by Jim Byerley

December 20, 1995

The flight to Cairo from New York is almost 12 1/2 hours, without a stop. At least, I can catch up on my movie going by watching two of the three films offered over the Atlantic. "Casper" gained an extra dimension with the Arabic subtitles, to be sure. I tried to explain the title of the next film, "The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill, But Came Down A Mountain," to the Egyptian businessman sitting next to me, but soon gave up in frustration. Two movies down and only eight hours to go.

Egypt is hectic. Cairo airport is hectic. Cairo is hectic. The twentith century meets the Dark Ages. You've heard about the terrible traffic in Naples, the crazy drivers in Mexico and the speed demon Italians, but nothing can prepare you for the freeway hell of downtown Cairo. Daredevil drivers pay no attention to lanes and one must continually dodge pedestrians and donkey carts loaded with cauliflowers or garlic. Car horns blast continuously. Was there really a Pharoah named Tootnhookin?

The Gezriah Sheraton, where the Cairo Film Festival participants are lodged, is under heavy security. A metal detector and numerous uniformed guards welcome the visitor. Political extremists have been sniping at tourists lately in Southern Egypt, so extra precautions are being taken. I have been invited back to the festival for the second time and HBO Pictures is represented by "Citizen X" showing in the official competition. Organization is not a strong point here, but the staff is obliging and cheery.

Attend a splashy reception for the Minister of Culture. The event is staged at the glorious Manyal Palace built in 1903 for Prince Mohammed Ali. It looks like a Hollywood set for one of those 1950's "Sheherezade" movies starring Debra Paget. The Palace is now open to the public and the Thomas Cook Guide recommends seeing the 1000-piece silver service, the table made of elephants' ears and the stuffed hermaphrodite goat. Guess they packed away the goat before we arrived, as it was nowhere to be found. Every inch of wall space in the grand ballroom is colorfully decorated and the centerpiece, a mammoth crystal chandelier, is bigger than a boxcar. The food (including freshly baked sweet potatoes) is fabulous and plentiful. Several well-known Egyptian actresses are in attendance with big hair and bosoms that almost rival that chandelier. The Minister and his forty bodyguards leave en masse. We follow shortly.

A day trip is organized to take Festival participants to the nearby town of Ismailia. Located at the midpoint of the Suez Canal, this town with some intriguing architecture is the operational headquarters for the shipping traffic. Take a brief boat trip and watch some supertankers pass us by on their way from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.. Nice lunch at one of the beach resorts lining the lake that joins the canal. Cross the canal by ancient ferry and drive into the Sinai Desert and visit the museum in what was the Israeli headquarters during the 1967 war.

Press screenings are held at the ultra modern Convention Center which is about twenty minutes ( if you are lucky) from the Sheraton. Gridlock can increase that travel time considerably. Screenings are well attended, the audiences 90% male. The showing of "Citizen X" is at 9 AM and the response seems to be favorable. The second showing at 6 PM will benefit from computer generated subtitles in Arabic and I learn later that it got ample applause. A computer whiz from Italy has been imported to oversee the translations and all goes smoothly. Other screenings are held at various theaters around Cairo and are less reliable. Movies get cancelled or rescheduled at random and theater owners have been known to charge admission even when attendees sport Festival credentials.

I screen about a dozen other competition films, but the quality seems down this year. The only other American movie in sight is the well-intentioned, but amateurish, "Land Of Milk And Honey". Americans , in general, are scarce in Cairo this year. Hollywood stars have stayed home in droves. Jeremiah Newton from New York University is back again with a package of student films to show at Cairo University. I am urged to stick around for the closing ceremony and there are hints of an HBO victory. A police escort accompanies us to the Convention Center, lights flashing and sirens blaring. If any extremists want to take a shot at a tourist, they know just where to find us.

Veteran Italian actor Alberto Sordi is in town and is a guest of honor. The film he directed, "Nestor-The Last Ride," will be the closing event. First, however, comes the introduction of the juries and other dignitaries. Then the President of the Film Festival assures the local audience that Israel will not be successful in shifting the center of the Arabic movie industry out of Egypt and into Lebanon. The partisan audience cheers. Then he sides with other foreign guests in attacking Hollywood. The preponderance of American films, it seems, is making life impossible for movie makers and distributors around the world. Will Hollywood stars make the trip to Cairo? Not likely. Time for the awards.

Sure enough, the jury has voted Stephen Rae the Best Actor prize and Best Screenplay goes to Chris Gerolmo. I accept the awards for "Citizen X" on live TV from Sarah Miles, a jury member. They are rather bulky reproductions of Egyptian sculptures mounted on a wooden base and encased in plexiglass. The director from Ukraine is apprehensive about getting his large prize past Russian customs officials. How will I carry these statues back to New York? They eventually do fit into the overhead luggage compartment as we depart Cairo and I settle into my seat to watch Disney's "Jungle Book" in Arabic. Only twelve more hours to go.

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