Launched in March 2012, the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) has established itself as the largest independent multi-disciplinary festival of its kind in Egypt. It brings together artists from Egypt, the Arab region, and around the world in a comprehensive three-week program of theater, film, music, dance, visual arts exhibitions, and workshops. With the 2017 edition of the festival fast approaching, D-CAF’s Artistic Director, Ahmed El Attar, discusses what the festival has to offer audiences this year.
What are some of this year’s program highlights?
Disabled Theater is a show we’re very much looking forward to. We’ve been trying to bring it to the festival for three years. This year, we finally succeeded. It’s one of our biggest shows, with 18 people travelling, and all of them are disabled actors and dancers with Down syndrome. It is the oldest company in Switzerland, probably in Europe, engaging with disabilities. The show has toured the world, and is directed by a huge choreographer in Jérôme Bel.
Cloture de l’amour by Pascal Rambert is another highlight. It’s the Arab world premiere of this famous piece, and the first time it will be performed in Arabic with local actors. Its text was translated into over 20 languages, and created by the director, who is also the playwright.
There’s also Andy Field, a young artist from the UK who creates very different, more intimate work. The show is really great and he’ll be working with local kids from the ages of 12 to 14, so we’re very much looking forward to that.
For the music program, we have Black Theama highlighting a “Made in Egypt” night that should set the festival ablaze. We also have sheikh Yassin El Tohamy, who is an icon of a very Egyptian style of singing and Sufi chanting. The guy is a living legend. We’re very lucky to have him on board.
This is the third year you’ll be doing the art and disability program; can you tell us about that?
It’s getting bigger every year. With the art and disability program, we’re creating three new pieces this year, not just one or two. This year, we have three productions and a workshop with Theater Hora from Switzerland for five days. It will be targeted at people who want to work with disabilities as well as people who have disabilities themselves, and will talk about how to integrate that into the creative process.
Although downtown is central to D-CAF, you’re also making an effort to expand beyond that this year. Can you tell us about the venues?
Yes. For the first time, we’re going to work in the Qaytbay area in the cemeteries near Salah Salem. It’s around the mosque of Qaytbay. We’re working with Archinos, an association that has an aim of renovating the monuments in the area. We’re doing some of our outdoor events there, which is another way of working with different communities and extending the boundaries of downtown while also coming out of its bubble.
We will use the GrEEK campus and the AUC Falaki Theater for dance and theater performances, while the rooftop of the JC building will host Andy Field’s performance. The visual arts program will be in the apartment on Huda Shaarawi Street and the Kodak Passageway on Adly Street, which we renovated along with CLUSTER as part of D-CAF’s 2014 edition.
You also have a very exciting project coming up as an extension of D-CAF, the Arab Arts Focus in Edinburgh…
We’re very excited about this, yes. This will be the third iteration of the Arab Focus, which we started doing in 2014 with the aim of giving young Egyptian and Arab artists the chance to have their work seen by international programmers. We would invite delegates from festivals all over the world to Cairo for a few days to watch a condensed program of all these shows, and if they like the shows, they can offer the artists a chance to perform them at their festivals worldwide.
The idea now is to basically have one year of the Arab Arts Focus in the Arab world, and one year outside. This year, we’re taking it to the biggest theater festival in the world: the Edinburgh Fringe. There were 3,358 shows there in 2016. We’re bringing seven shows, which were selected out of 122 applicants. The idea is to have a proper presence, and also to choose shows that can work in the festival there because it’s very demanding since you perform every day for three weeks. There is an interest from the audience and programmers. There is also a need for different discourse and different exposure for Arab artists, whether inside or out. That’s exactly what we aim to provide.
In this 2017 edition, looking back at the past six years, how do you think the festival has evolved?
The fact that the festival survived till now is a miracle in some sense, but is also the result of a lot of hard work and building on experiences. Now, we need to look at how to expand beyond the boundaries of downtown, to go to other cities and other parts. It changes from one year to another, depending on the kind of partners we find and activities we have. Last year, we did something very small in Beirut, and we had something in Assiut and Alexandria before as well.
We have a lot more local collaborations. We’re continuing to working with Zaye Zayak and the Hassan Foundation on our disability program. We’re working with Archinos for the first time, and we’re working with the backstreet festival in Alexandria, taking some of their shows and bringing some of our shows there. At this point, we’re trying to move beyond just our nucleus, to make D-CAF a festival that is centered in, but not limited to, Downtown Cairo.
Could you talk to us a bit about the concept for this year’s D-CAF?
The entire idea of it was to blend the familiar and unfamiliar into one. There are a lot of things in our life that might be strange, but we’re used to them, and vice versa. So it’s really about perception. We tried to relate that to contemporary art in the sense that it always attempts to view reality in a different light. There’s a lot of distortion and strangeness there, but also a lot of romanticism and affection.
That’s a message that we tried to nail in our posters. In one of them for instance, you see a giraffe in the street. That’s obviously very strange, but the way we blended and edited it into our promo made it look very natural to the viewer. Contemporary art always tries to do just that, alienating the familiar and challenging our reality. D-CAF has always been all about that.