Middle East Premiere of Penelope Cruz-Starring ‘Official Competition’ to Open Cairo Film Festival

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The Middle East premiere of caustic Spanish comedy “Official Competitionwill open the Cairo Film Festival, which has assembled a rich roster of international titles for its upcoming 43rd edition, to be held in person Nov. 26-Dec. 5.

Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, who are co-directors of the colorful pic starring Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas — which turns on a billionaire businessman determined to bankroll a memorable movie — are expected, barring complications, to attend the regional launch of their Venice-premiering comedy.

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Cairo, which is the grande dame of the Arab world’s cinema shindigs — and the only festival in the Middle East and North Africa region to be accorded category “A” status by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations in Paris (FIAPF) — has been subjected to some disruption lately caused by Saudi Arabia’s deep-pocketed Red Sea Festival.

The Red Sea Festival in May decided to move the dates for its inaugural edition in Jeddah to Dec. 6-15, three weeks later than its previously announced slot, forcing Cairo to reposition itself right before the inaugural Red Sea extravaganza. As always, Cairo comes after Egypt’s El Gouna fest, which was held in mid-October.

Cairo fest president Mohamed Hefzy, who is a prominent Egyptian producer, told Variety that “despite the competitiveness of all these Arab festivals vying for the Middle East premieres, it’s been easier to put together a good program this year,” noting that besides the premieres of international titles cherry-picked by his team from the fest circuit, they had plenty of top-notch Arabic titles to chose from as well.

“Last year, there were so few films,” Hefzy said, referring to Arabic fare, “and this year it’s coming back to normal.”

Cairo will feature 11 films in the Arabic competition, most of which are world premieres, as well as two Arabic titles playing in the international competition. “It’s quite an improvement, both in terms of quality and quantity,” Hefzy noted.

Among Arabic pics in the main competition, one that Hefzy is particularly proud of is Nadine Khan’s sophomore drama “Abu Saddam,” starring ace Egyptian actor Muhammad Mamdouh as a veteran truck driver on a tough transport mission that gets particularly complicated.

I think it’s going to be one of the standout films of the [main] competition,” Hefzy said. Khan’s first feature “Chaos, Disorder” won the jury prize at the now defunct Dubai International Film Festival in 2012.

“Abu Saddam” will be vying for the fest’s Golden Pyramid prize alongside international titles including Italian director Jonas Carpignano’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight prizewinner “A Chiara”; Bogdan George Apetri’s Romanian crime drama “Miracle,” which launched from Venice; Tatiana Huezo’s drama “Prayers for the Stolen,” set in Mexico’s cartel-blighted hinterlands; and South Korean writer-director Hong Sung-eun’s urban solitude drama “Aloners,” which launched from San Sebastian.

Standouts in Cairo’s separate Horizons of Arab Cinema competition comprise Tunisian star Dhafer L’Abidine’s directorial debut “Ghodwa” which revolves around an estranged father, played by the actor-turned-director, and his son who are brought together after the older man becomes ill, reversing their traditional roles. “We were really impressed by his work as a director and also as an actor [in the film],” said Hefzy.

The Arabic competition opener is the omnibus work “Becoming” featuring five shorts by first-time Saudi women directors with female-centric narratives. Other standout titles in the section include the world premiere of prominent Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Masharawi’s doc “Diary of Gabrielle Street” and the drama “Daughters of Abdul-Rahman,” a first work from Jordan by Zaid Abu Hamdan, toplining Jordanian star Saba Mubarak, who is also one of the film’s producers.

As previously announced, Emir Kusturica will preside over the jury, which also comprises U.S. actor Marisa Berenson; Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane; Lebanese composer Khaled Mouzannar; Egyptian actor Nelly Karim; French actor Nora Arzeneder; and Italian director Roberto Minervini.

On the industry side, the fest’s Cairo Film Connection co-production platform this year has raised its prize pot to more than $300,000 for the 15 selected Arabic film projects.

The CFC market event, which will run Dec. 1-5 has also partnered with Netflix to co-host several workshops and panels including the “Because She Created” initiative aimed at empowering female filmmakers in the Arab world.

This event will feature a live conversation with Egyptian star Hend Sabry about her first experience as executive producer on Netflix’s upcoming new Arab original series “Finding Ola” and a panel dedicated to Netflix’s recent “Al Rawabi School for Girls” about a group of high school girls in Jordan who plot their revenge on a trio of bullies at their school.

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