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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

El Gouna Film Festival: Egypt's new annual film fest gets underway 

The Red Sea resort of El Gouna is playing host to a festival that aims to give Arab talent a new critical platform

Manal Hassan and Maha Hajjaj shopping for vegetable in Soufra. Courtesy Soufra
Manal Hassan and Maha Hajjaj shopping for vegetable in Soufra. Courtesy Soufra

Under the slogan “Cinema for Humanity”, the first annual El Gouna Film Festival began on Friday (September 22) with an ambitious vision for its inaugural edition. About 500 kilometres south of Cairo, along Egypt’s Red Sea coast in the holiday resort city of El Gouna, the festival is the latest addition to the regional circuit that includes the Dubai International Film Festival . Running until tomorrow, El Gouna drew hundreds of regional and international stars.

In an opening statement, the festival’s director, Intishal Al-Timimi, said that the festival is “looking to bridge Egyptian and international culture by sharing ideas, interests, and dreams”. In the festival’s editorial statement, it expressed the organiser’s hope “to situate their annual programme as a place of film development and financing, but also a place of critical discussion and creative inspiration, all aimed at connecting Arab cinema with its destined audience around

the world.”

While the GFF is the latest addition to a healthy regional film festival circuit, many are not overlooking the fact that it has big business backing from the Orascom umbrella group, including Orascom Development, the property force that built El Gouna.

The choice of Al Timimi as festival director ensures a commendable level of film and festival expertise: he was the Arab cinema programmer of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and its Sanad film fund for Arab cinema. Its collaborators range from younger cinephiles and cultural producers like Zawya’s Alya Ayman, to Mostafa Youssef – both of the CineGouna platform, a local project development and co-production lab.

According to Rowan El Shimi, a culture journalist based in Egypt, with the closing of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2014 came a need for a critical platform within the regional Arab film community. “The GFF was strategic in picking up this calendar slot, as it comes right after the international festival circuit, but just before the regional cycle.” El Shimi says that the festival offers regional filmmakers an additional platform for competitions, premieres, distribution, and networking. Currently, filmmakers based in the Arab world have only a handful of festivals they can enter their films into outside highly competitive international events.

The festival took place across three main locations and five screens around El Gouna. Over the years, the city of El Gouna has marketed itself as a haven for domestic and international tourism, while simultaneously positioning itself as a residential destination for upper-class Egyptians looking to break away from urban. In both cases, the introduction of an international film festival brings culture, entertainment, and excitement to the burgeoning resort town.

This year’s programme, curated by Al Timini, consists of several Middle Eastern premieres of the leading films from this year’s international festival circuit, largely from Venice and Toronto, in addition to a selection of world premieres of mostly Arab titles. The week-long programme presented a selection of recent films from around the globe, including three competitive sections (feature narrative competition, feature documentary competition, and short films competition), an official selection out of competition, and a section devoted to special presentations. According to the festival’s press review, GFF is giving special attention to films with humanitarian content. Films competing for cash prizes totalling $200,000 included the courtroom drama The Insult by Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri; the Georgian, family drama, Scary Mother, by Ana Urushadze; the family break-up drama, No Bed of Roses, a Bangladeshi-Indian co-production by filmmaker Mostafa Sarwar Farooki; Tamer Ashry’s debut film, Photocopy; Egyptian director Amr Salam’s highly-anticipated Sheikh Jackson, and more.

A foreign Oscar contender, Sheikh Jackson stars Ahmed El Fishawy and Ahmed Malek in the role of Khaled, a Muslim cleric obsessed with Michael Jackson. The film met with mixed reviews from audiences and critics alike because of a controversial scene where a Jackson-infused dance montage breaks out in a mosque. In any case, the film provides a curious take on societal contradictions, set against the ghostly presence of the King of Pop.

Documentaries were also on show, with world premieres well-worth watching including Soufra, an inspiring refugee story following a female entrepreneur, produced by Susan Sarandon; I Have a Picture by Egypt’s Mohamed Zedan, which delves into Egyptian film history, and 17 by Jordan’s Widad Shafakoj. The latter is a particularly heartwarming and inspirational film about the trailblazing Jordanian under-17 women’s world cup football team. With few exceptions, including several films on the refugee and migration crisis, and artist Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow along with the 225-minute epic-documentary, The Wild Frontier, Al Timimi’s selection for the festival did not take many risks.

For Sherif Nakhla, a filmmaker based in Cairo, the movie that stood out the most, at four hours long, was The Wild Frontiers. The latest documentary by French filmmakers Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval, the film follows the emergence and break-up of the Calais migrants’ camp, known as the Jungle, in which almost 7,800 people lived, before the French authorities demolished it in the winter of 2016. “The film was done with extreme precision and artistry,” said Nakhla. “It was extremely poetic and managed to find many cinematic approaches and ways of storytelling that I haven’t found in conventional documentaries in a long time. It’s not for everyone, but it is for those viewers looking for a real experience they won’t forget.”

Other highlights in the festival’s programme were the films that celebrated the musical arts, two of which were The Music of Silence – about the music and life of opera singer Andrea Bocelli – and filmmaker Alain Gomis’s Felicity, a vibrant, documentary-style portrayal of a singer in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For those with a particular fondness for 70s-nostalgia and Studio-54 snapshots, there was Sophie Fiennes’ fragmented film about larger-than-life disco star Grace Jones.

In fact these frothier, high-energy films made for a suitable companion to a seaside evening by means of both open-air and indoor screening experiences, after which guests could roam around to engage with El Gouna’s busy downtown and marina bars and restaurants. While the festival still has some organisational kinks to work out and offers a lighter programme than other film events in Egypt – with only 25 films screened compared to Cairo Film Festival’s 200 to 300 films – it did succeed in planting the seeds of a heavyweight in the regional film industry.