Cairo film fest brings Islam to the big screen

Islam in international cinema is new theme section


A group of media students from Cairo University stood at the ticket counter of Good News Cinema waiting to purchase their tickets to Return to Hansala, the last of five films featured at the 32nd Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) under the newly added theme Islam in the International Cinema.

Even prior to watching the film, scepticism about the accuracy and fairness of portraying Islam and Muslims in Western media was high.

“How different will it be from other movies we have seen?” was Mahmud Shafi’s rhetorical question. “These movies try to understand Islamic culture but always end up resorting to stereotypes to wrap up a story,” 20-year-old Shafi told as he waited in line.

The festival, which kicked off on last Tuesday, has a history of launching new artistic initiatives every year to further develop the Arab film industry. It is the only Arab festival belonging to the International Federation of Film, which includes Cannes and 11 other major festivals.

“For this year’s competition we added two new categories which we found pressing and timely: Human Rights Films and Islam in International Cinema,” Egyptian media critic and CIFF Jury member Yusuf Sherif Rizqullah told

Portraying Islam

The past few years have seen a surge of T.V shows and films on Islam and Muslims. Portrayals ranging from comic episodes like the Canadian ‘Little Mosque on the Prairie’ to the serious Scottish drama ‘Yasmin,’ the serious Indian film ‘Khuda Kay Liye’ (In the name of God) underscore the international market that exists for films about Islam.

Rizqullah said that since a large number of films presented this year for selection at the festival dealt with Muslim and non-Muslim relations across borders, “a new theme section was a must.”

“Assigning a special category for these films enables serious content analysis of the different approaches to Islam and Western and Eastern societies these films feature,” he added.

Al-Ahram newspaper cinema critic Nader Adley said the new theme added value to the festival.

“It certainly shows the degree to which the Arab cinema industry is committed to supporting a variety of films,” explained Adley to, but added that he was not readily optimistic about the impact such films would have on the Egyptian film industry.

“It is hard to expect such films to leave their mark on the film industry in Egypt or gain popularity amongst Egyptian viewers right away,” he said.

Adley said the issue lies in the message of foreign film and the readiness of the audience to think outside their experiences as Middle Eastern Muslims.

It is hard to expect such films to leave their mark on the film industry in Egypt or gain popularity amongst Egyptian viewers right away

Media critic Yusuf Sherif Rizqulla

Return to Hansala

The Spanish film ‘Return to Hansala’ was one of the films that raised heated debate at a panel discussion on the accuracy of Muslim portrayals in film held after the screening Monday.

The film follows the journey of Leila, a Moroccan immigrant living in Spain who pays a funeral undertaker to help her take the body of her dead brother, who drowned in an attempt to illegally immigrate, back to Morocco for burial. The journey of the Spanish curator and Moroccan girl to her Berber village reveals the limits and potential connections between East and West.

“The movie is about the human connection that takes place between Leila and Martin who starts off as highly critical of Islam and Moroccan culture but by the end of the film comes to accept Leila and gains an understanding of Islam,” Spanish-Moroccan actress Farah Hamed told

During the panel discussion, however, the audience focused on the failure to accurately depict Islamic burial practices, and several viewers questioned the ending of the film, which hinted at a romantic union between the Muslim Leila and the non-Muslim undertaker.

Sawsan Afifi, 30, criticized the scenes of Rachid’s burial rituals as Islamically inaccurate. “When the coffin arrives to the village, the family members do not even open the coffin to make sure it is their son! This is a very basic practice in the Arab Muslim world.” Sawsan told

“What does the ending scene with Martin and Leila making out really mean? Doesn’t director Chus Giutierrez think it is contradictory to portray Leila throughout the film as devout Muslim only to end the film with her love for a non-Muslim?” another viewer asked Farah.

Farah Hamed emphasized the human message of the film in responding to the probing questions, adding that though political, social and religious issues were present they were not the focus of the production.

Both Rizqullah and Adley said that changes in attitudes towards foreign films that depict Islam and Muslims can only come gradually and is a process that both foreign film directors and Muslim audiences have to work towards.