It is to the vibrant cultural scene of cosmopolitan Alexandria, home to a melting pot of nationalities and ethnicities and to the poets, writers, architects, merchants and industrialists who found inspiration and opportunity in this fascinating city, that Egyptian cinema owes its beginnings.
By the mid-1920s, Alexandria had become a filmmaking hub, attracting artists and entrepreneurs from all backgrounds. To this day, Alexandria, the city where I grew up and of which I have my fondest memories, remains the city where the magic began.
Today, the El Gouna Film Festival (GFF) with its exciting activities, great organisation, high standards of screening, and plethora of eager, dynamic and ambitious young people has become a new hub for filmmakers, critics and audiences celebrating the art, craft and business of cinema and presenting a selection of the newest and best films from around the globe.
This year’s festival paid tribute to three world cinema icons, the Italian director Federico Fellini, the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, and the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine. Prominent in the audience were three popular government ministers, Ghada Wali, Rania Al-Mashat and Ines Abdel-Dayem.
I have just returned from participating in the second edition of the El Gouna Film Festival, which was truly an amazing, exciting, informative and entertaining cinematic experience.
In the words of Naguib Sawiris, its founder, “the main inspiration [behind the GFF] was our strong belief in the important role of art and cinema in the development of nations and in curbing the regressive beliefs that we have been suffering from of late. Nowadays, the world only hears of our region in the context of tragic and devastating news. We aim to show the world the true face of Egypt... with its civilisation, creativity, art and culture.”
Through its diverse and eclectic programmes the festival has managed to build bridges between cultures and nations. It was refreshing to watch culturally sensitive films this year containing important social messages, particularly since many of today’s non-mainstream films are swamped in a sea of superficial commercial productions that depend on private companies providing limited support for independent film-making.
I would have loved to attend all the films at the GFF this year and all the events that took place, but unfortunately this was impossible. I can only share some of my impressions from this incredible cinematic experience full of joy, discovery, exploration, and “good vibes”, to quote the celebrated actor Ezzat Abu Ouf.
The most acclaimed film that was screened and the one that has been selected as Egypt’s submission for the 91st Academy Awards in the US was the winner of the main prize at the GFF. Yomeddine is a film made with actors who are not famous, and most of them have never acted before.
Like the films of Yousry Nasrallah, a groundbreaking Egyptian filmmaker who was honoured at the festival, director Abu Bakr Shawky’s Yomeddine, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, makes visible something which is often overlooked, if not ignored, being the leper colony in Abu Zaabal in Egypt.
However, while some scenes were very poignant, this was very far from being a heavy film. In the almost full open-air marina theatre, the festival screening saw the attendance of celebrity guests who applauded the film enthusiastically, recognising it as a fine example of “cinema for humanity”, the slogan of the festival.
Actors Rady Gamal and Ahmed Abdel-Hafez are to be sincerely congratulated along with producers Dina Emam and Mahmoud Hefzy.
Another film that scored a direct hit was Gunshot (Eyar Nari), screened for the first time at the GFF and directed by Karim Al-Shennawy.
The film is set against the backdrop of the 25 January Revolution. It is a classic detective movie, but at the same time it underlines the blind adherence of society to certain narratives.
Al-Shennawy and screenwriter Haitham Dabour tackled a political issue in the form of an engaging and enthralling thriller with an amazingly talented cast.
Among the short films at the GFF, extremely popular and sold out days in advance, was the extraordinary Syrian film The Cord with promising young actress Nada Khoury.
Many young Syrian filmmakers were given the opportunity to showcase their films at the GFF, showing their plight as refugees in the most dramatic tragedy of this century. Such films are an important eye-opener for international opinion.
Among the most exciting events at the GFF were the Cinema for Humanity panel discussions and the short film programmes.
Cinema Gouna Bridge was a meeting point and a forum for dialogue in which filmmakers shared their perspectives. I attended the extraordinary panel on Women’s Empowerment through Film moderated by the first ever female Tunisian film producer Dora Bouchoucha.
Maya Morsi, president of Egypt’s National Council for Women, and women activists from India and other countries were also on the panel. I came out with three powerful messages: talent has no gender (Bouchoucha); women have to tell their stories (India); and don’t be shy about being a woman (Morsi).
To these I would add that women need to make their voices heard, and they need greater employment opportunities.
Another exciting event was the extraordinary Tribute Concert of music used in the late Egyptian director Youssef Chahine’s films. Chahine’s unforgettable finger prints were easily recognised by the audience at this audiovisual concert conducted by Hisham Gabr.
Scenes from Chahine’s films brought tears of nostalgia to our eyes, including from The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Sixth Day, Alexandria Again and Forever, The Emigrant, and The Destiny.
This special event marking 10 years since the passing of Egypt’s internationally acclaimed director saw a full house, and the audience included his dynamic niece Marianne Khoury, the iconic actress Yousra, popular stars Adel Imam, Inas Al-Deghidi, Elham Shahine, Laila Elwi, Laila Sheir, Amina Khalil, Sara Abdel-Rahman and Lebleba, organiser Bushra Rozza, co-founder and CEO of the GFF Yousry Nasrallah, Khaled Youssef, Amir Ramsis, its artistic director, festival director Intishal Al-Tamimi, Samih Sawiris, the founder of the El Gouna resort, and many others who wanted to thank Chahine for his gift to all our lives.
The GFF was also an opportunity to reflect on film production in Egypt and on the vision of two brothers, Naguib and Samih Sawiris, who have been trying to foster understanding across cultures and have shown extraordinary generosity in sponsorship unprecedented in Egypt.
Film festivals are crucial platforms for filmmakers to be discovered and for their work to gain exposure and support. However, they will not survive without the creative content of the new generation.
It is for this reason that the organisers should focus on exploring new and emerging talents, which we look forward to seeing in next year’s third edition of the El Gouna Film Festival, making it the most important festival in the MENA region.
* The writer is a university professor and former MP.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: An open-ended dream