Cairo film festival judges walk out over Israeli-made movie

French-sponsored event to be held without a jury or awards.

Kimat Normali (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kimat Normali
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A French-Egyptian film festival will open in Cairo on Thursday, despite a walkout by Egyptian judges incensed at the inclusion of a young Israeli filmmaker’s work.
The controversy first came to light when one of the festival judges, Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Atef, resigned after seeing that the work of  Israeli filmmaker Keren Ben-Rafael – a  23-minute short film called Kimat Normali (“Almost Normal”) –  would be one of the films shown.
After Atef’s decision, prominent Egyptian director Kamla Abu Zikri and actor Asser Yassin were quoted by AFP as saying they would also boycott the Recontres de l’Image festival, organized by the cultural attaché of the French Embassy in Cairo together with the National Center for Egyptian Cinema.
Both Abu Zikri and Yassin were schedule to sit on the festival’s jury along with Atef.
Promotional material for the festival, which runs through April 15, did not mention Ben-Rafael’s nationality, but did say that her movie was filmed in Tel Aviv.
The film employed a predominately Jewish Israeli cast and crew. However, Ben-Rafael’s nationality was irrelevant to the film’s inclusion; she was deemed a French filmmaker because she was a foreign student at the prestigious French film school La Femis, where she graduated in 2008.
In addition to the Israeli cast and crew, four fellow students from La Femis helped Ben-Rafael with the production of Kimat Normali.
Following the threats by Abu Zikri and Yassin, organizers decided to remove Kimat Normali from the festival’s schedule, but the French Foreign Ministry threatened to cancel the film festival altogether if a solution wasn’t reached.
Finally, the decision was made to keep Ben-Rafael’s film on the schedule of the festival, which will be held without a jury or awards committee.
Yassin told AFP last week that their boycott “is not anti-Jewish, it is to protest against Israeli policies.” Abu Zikri told AFP she was boycotting the festival to protest “any sort of normalization with Israel.”
Last Friday, the spokesperson for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed his dismay at the decision by the Egyptian judges to boycott the festival and said the ministry hoped “the festival would continue under a pleasant atmosphere that will develop a conduit between young French and Egyptian filmmakers and will lead to genuine discussions and not futile arguments.”
Kimat Normali does not deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict. An online description of the film, which was shown at the Oxford Film Festival in February, describes it as centering around the world of 12-year-old Shai, who was born exactly 10 years after the death of Yitzhak, his mother’s first husband, so that every year, instead of celebrating his birthday, Shai has to go to the cemetery with his family and mark Yitzhak’s death.
“This year, Shai is going to turn 12 and decided it will be different, he will do everything he can to feel, for once, normal,” the description states.
Ben-Rafael will not attend the festival in Cairo. She told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that she was “quite tired of talking about the issue.”
This is not the first time that an Israeli film has sparked controversy at a film festival in the Arab world. In 2008, The Band’s Visit, an Israeli film about an Egyptian police band stuck in a remote Israeli town, was boycotted by the Cairo and Abu Dhabi film festivals, with many saying showing the film would be an endorsement of normalization. It was later shown at a special screening in Cairo.
In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab state to sign a formal peaceagreement with Israel, but relations on a person-to-person level haveoften been cool and normalization is still resisted in cultural circles.
Contactedby the Post, Israel Film Fund manager Katri Shahurisaid the organization was not at all involved with the production ofKimat Normali, since the fund only deals withfull-length movies.
Nonetheless, Shahuri said that controversiessuch as that over the showing of Kimat Normali inEgypt are “a fact of life” for the Israeli film industry, especiallywhen it comes to the Arab world.