Spotlight on Reem Allam, Executive Manager and Artistic Programmer of D-CAF
Tuesday, October 6, 2020
Posted by: Kally Zhao
Tell us a little bit about yourself, how your work has been impacted by the pandemic, and whether there is a rescheduled date for the D-CAF festival with Arab Arts Focus.
I come from the Northeast corner of Africa, in motherland Egypt. My current role is Executive Manager and Artistic Programmer of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), Egypt’s largest international multi-disciplinary arts festival that takes place in downtown Cairo. I got my master’s degree in Arts, Festivals, and Cultural Management from Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, and have since worked on several international festivals locally and abroad, including London's Shubbak Festival and Arab Arts Focus (AAF) showcase - Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I’ve also served as a juror on international jury boards for festivals such as Switzerland’s Zürcher Theater Spektakel and Poland's Boska Komedia Festival, attended as an accredited delegate/producer acclaimed film festivals such as the Festival de Cannes, and I’m currently teaching cultural management courses/training in Cairo.
As a team, we also host a biennial AAF showcase during the D-CAF festival, where international delegates fly into Cairo to attend a packed program of the latest in contemporary performances by Arab artists. Due to the pandemic and precautionary measures in force, we have had to postpone our festival and AAF showcase that was due to take place in April 2020.
The safety of audiences, artists and everyone involved was of course our top priority, yet postponing the festival was still a tough decision with logistical and financial loss implications for us and all those involved, bearing in mind that funds for the independent arts sector in our country are already very limited. The problem is that in a country like Egypt, deciding to be a contemporary dancer, for example, is in itself still considered somewhat taboo or unfavored by society, and therefore difficult to sustain, so losing a source of income/fee from a festival like D-CAF was harsh on many local artists. In general, funding for local artists is limited and only available on a regional basis, so competition is high as local artists are competing with artists from the whole Arab world. D-CAF is not just among the few opportunities in the arts sector available to them, but also a platform offering them exposure internationally, in times where they are denied visa and travel to market their work abroad like other fellow artists from other parts of the world.
However, despite all this, we decided as a team to have an optimistic outlook on the situation, taking the time to reflect internally and focus on other projects we had lined up that didn’t require a live audience. For example, we worked on renovating the Rawabet Theater, in downtown Cairo, which is considered the only affordable theater space in Cairo that young theater and dance performers rely on to rent for their performances, as all other spaces are either expensive or government owned, used exclusively for Ministry of Culture activities. As a result, our reopening of Rawabet next month and after a year of closure due to legal/financial problems faced by its previous owner, will lift sprits up and bring great hope to our sector. As a country, we were never under severe lockdown. We had a curfew for a period of time and large gatherings were forbidden, but the theater will be able to reopen at 50% capacity for the event. At the end of this month, we will be featuring a couple of live performing arts events at venues throughout the city, including an acting workshop, a piece by two French artists, and a film screening of Honeyland in an actual beehive honey farm in Egypt.
During the months of the pandemic, we also worked on providing online content, mainly in the form of workshops and short informative videos, and we presented Egypt’s first international audio/radio drama festival, Mawgat online last June/July. We didn’t want to just hastily bring our live content online like everyone else, but we first analyzed what would fit the digital space and the quite different audience online. Then we presented original new content for them, and not the other way around. For example, we felt that radio drama would work much better and have a bigger reach in the form of online podcasts rather than in a limited physical space since it doesn’t rely on the visual element. We were also able to host audio drama work online by artists from countries like Syria, who are legally banned from entering Egypt, so it was a chance for our local audiences to experience art across borders despite any physical barriers.
Finally, we decided to reschedule the date of D-CAF with the AAF showcase to October/November 2021, and hopefully guarantee a diverse safe gathering of delegates by then. We hope to see you all here, once more visiting and experiencing different arts and cultures in our world today!
In addition to the pandemic, a lot has been happening in the broader region. Do you believe arts and culture can have a positive impact on the future?
I believe the pandemic has shown us how art is inherently needed in our societies. The first thing people did across the world in lockdown was search for films, stream live shows, and read books to keep them entertained and sane in those difficult times, while people started coming together from their balconies at home to make music, sing, and dance to uplift their morale.
This universality of the arts is not to be underestimated. That’s why I feel that the arts and culture will definitely have a role in helping us reimagine and work on a better future. If we look at other crises or huge social movements that have happened in the world in the past decade, from the Arab Spring to the Hong Kong protest movement, we will see that the arts, from music to visual arts, played a role in giving people a voice and a form of expressing their demands and wishes for a better future. This time around, while facing a global crisis, I am sure that the arts will inspire change, help us reflect on our actions towards our society and environment, and on how to rebuild a better future, a more grounded, tolerable, inclusive, and greener future.
You’re on the planning committee for the upcoming Virtual Edition: 2021 ISPA Congress next January 11-15, 2021. What kinds of opportunities does a virtual congress provide compared to an in-person congress?
The most valuable opportunity a virtual congress provides is a chance to interact and listen to people from all over the world, especially from countries that would normally have mobility barriers, due to denials of visas and travel restrictions or simply lack the financial resources to travel, preventing them from being present in New York physically if it was an in-person congress. We finally have a chance for those voices to be heard, whether during sessions and post-discussions, Provocations, Coffee Klatch, Pitch New Works, or Pro Ex, that will all still exist in this virtual format. There will also be on-demand, pre-recorded components, as well as a live component presented twice in two different time zones tailoring to people from all different continents.
Another advantage of having a virtual congress is that it will be the most accessible congress ISPA will have presented thus far, in terms of accessibility for the deaf and physically disabled participants and its affordability, which will hopefully bring in those who are new to ISPA experiencing their very first congress. It will also bring in more geographic diversity. For example, there will be 10 regional updates instead of the usual three, so it’s a real chance to come to grips with this global crisis and the resilient efforts of the different parts of the world, from the comfort of your seat.
For many, especially in Europe and North America, Covid-19 is the first big crisis they have encountered, but in some cases like in the Arab world, where the last decade has been full of revolutions, sudden government interventions, border closures, armed conflict or civil unrest, arts organizations are used to operating under conditions of great instability and vulnerability, which could make them more fragile yet in other ways more resilient and adaptable. Therefore, I believe that ISPA’s virtual congress can give us an opportunity to reflect and gain the perspective of those who have faced huge crises before and how they came out of them more prepared and resilient. Let’s see how we can learn from each other’s experiences and collectively imagine the future of the arts together.
Our members may be a bit screen-fatigued. Why is the congress a not-to-be-missed event?
Let’s not forget, that not all parts of the world have the same privilege of access to internet and the luxury of attending online congresses and shows. So actually, being screen-fatigued is a luxury! Especially when you look at regions or neighborhoods where there is poor internet access, and other financial difficulties affecting access to technology, so I believe we should make use of this privilege of being able to participate in ISPA’s virtual congress in 2021, and critically dive into discussing and reflecting on terms like accessibility and inclusion, social justice and equality, and what they mean to different people in different regions on this planet.
Yet if anyone still feels screen-fatigued on the congress days, we’re offering really interesting podcasts for the first time at ISPA, giving attendees a great opportunity to connect off-screen as well!
We really look forward to having you all with us for this virtual congress, reflecting and rebuilding our future together using the creativity and socially conscious values that lie at the heart of our sector!