In the festival’s third round, the main two figures in El Gouna Film Festival (GFF, 18-27 September) seem proud of the progress made, as audience numbers are increasing, and the international network is expanding which helps the festival to keep its promise of providing the best international and Arab films of the year.
GFF Director Intishal Al Timimi believes that in three years the festival has secured a notable position on the global film festival map. “We feel it is reflected in our everyday work,” he said, explaining this time the leading international distributors were more than ready to allow the GFF team to make their selection of the films prior to their world premieres at major film festivals. “This indicates the growing weight of the festival on a global scale.” He explains that the festival is experiencing significant expansion of its international network as well as accomplishing a breakthrough in terms of organisation, through a digital system that orchestrates its processes and minimizes human error. “This is a difference we expect our audiences to feel in the flow of everything”. There are further agreements with international film production entities, and further international delegations are invited to observe and evaluate festival activities as a prelude to potential cooperation.
Al Timimi seems confident that the film selection in the third edition meets expectations. “We continue to keep our promise of showcasing around 80 of the best international and Arab works of the year in the three competitions, the Feature Narrative, Feature Documentary, and Short Films, in addition to the Official Out of Competition Selection and the Special Representations programmes.” Most are either award-winning films or films that have had international premieres at prestigious film festivals. Some of the selected films this year were supported by GFF in previous editions, and now they are proudly taking part in major film festivals around the world.
Supporting projects in development and films in post-production both financially and technically was an initiative that started with the first round of GFF. Al Timimi explains that the CineGouna SpringBoard which serves as a project development and co-production lab for Arab filmmakers is represented by the many film projects it has supported, which are now taking part in the top film festivals in the world. For example, this year, three films that received CineGouna SpringBoard support—Certified Mail by Egyptian director Hisham Saqr, 1982 by Lebanese director Oualid Mouaness, and Noura’s Dream by Tunisian director Hinde Boujemaa— were selected for the Discovery section of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Noura’s Dream is also participating in the New Directors section of San Sebastián International Film Festival, and it will be part of GFF’s Feature Narrative Competition alongside 1982. Two other documentary films supported by GFF—Khartoum Offside by Sudanese director Marwa Zein, and Talking About Trees by Sudanese director Suhaib Gasmelbari—also participated in the Berlin Film Festival. The latter will compete in the Feature Documentary Competition of GFF this year.
Another point made by the festival director is the slight increase in film projects in the post production phase submitted to the CineGouna. “This is quite promising, considering all the production difficulties the region is now facing.” According to him, the programme is attracting numerous high-quality projects, which makes the process of selection challenging: “At the end of the day, our selection is only limited to 18 projects: 12 in development, and six in post-production.” On the other hand, he mentions the growing efforts for GFF to broaden its scale in supporting Arab filmmakers in other film festivals and initiatives, such as the Beirut Cinema Platform, Final Cut in Venice, the Arabian Sights Film Festival, and the MAFF Market Forum. “In addition to financial support, the selected projects have the opportunity to take part in the CineGouna SpringBoard as a guest project. This year, we are hosting two guest projects that GFF had supported in the Beirut Cinema Platform and the Final Cut in Venice.”
In this year’s GFF there are only two Egyptian narrative films in the official Out of Competition selection and two Egyptian shorts in the Short Film Competition, compared to over nine Arab films in the Feature Documentary and Narrative competition and six Arab films in the Short Film Competition among other international film selections. For Al Tamimi, the nationality of a film does not play a significant role in the selection process: “GFF is a bridge between Arab filmmakers and world cinema. It is very important to represent the region with quality films, as film selection should not depend on geographical concerns.” Regarding the two Egyptian Feature Narrative films, one of them is The Knight and the Princess—the first Egyptian animated feature film—by acclaimed screenwriter and director Bashir El-Deek. The other is When We Are Born by Tamer Ezzat. Both are having their international premieres.
One interesting events involves inviting the young Egyptian-Canadian star Mena Massoud, the star of Aladdin (2019), as a guest of this edition. For Al Timimi, the international success of an Arab filmmaker is an opportunity to celebrate Arab filmmakers everywhere. “It is an international festival that is based in the Arab region; its identity heavily depends on the balance between its international, Arab, and Egyptian aspects.”
The list of the honoured artists and celebrities this year includes the Palestinian director and producer Mai Masri and the Egyptian actor Mohamed Heneidy, who both will receive the Career Achievement Award. The reason of the selection according to Al Timimi is that both are representatives of great achievements in Arab cinema. “Masri is a talented filmmaker who worked for 30 years under extremely difficult circumstances. Among her achievements are many documentary films and a narrative feature film. She worked both independently and with her late husband, the distinguished director Jean Chamoun. We will be celebrating Mai Masri for all of these important aspects of her career and life.” As for Mohamed Heneidy, he represents a new and young generation that made a dramatic change in Egyptian cinema in the early 1990s. “Heneidy is a big star who was able with his generation of young actors to stage a renaissance in Egyptian cinema in a critical time. It is a well-deserved award,” Al Timimi said, adding that “there are always numerous figures who deserve to be celebrated, and we try to select those who have the biggest influence on the industry; those whose achievements have a value that goes beyond their personal limits”.
In the previous round of GFF, the budget shrunk in comparison to the inaugural round, yet this did not have any notable impact on its activities. For Al Timimi, budget sustainability is one of the GFF’s main objectives. In spite of the expansion of festival activities and programmes, the budget should not turn into a burden. In the first edition, up to 85 per cent of the budget was secured by the founders, the Sawiris family. In the second edition, however, they contributed 55 per cent of the budget. This year, they are contributing 45-50 per cent. The rest of the budget is secured by the growing number of companies and entities that are keen on being part of the event. Other parties such as the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, as well as other governmental entities, have a growing interest in the festival’s activities, and they contribute logistical support. “Generally speaking, there is a growing interest in supporting the festival by many new organisations.”
Despite the growing success of GFF, Al Timimi believes that the number of film festivals in the Arab region remains below what is needed, “and this could be an unpopular opinion”. For him the five main festivals in the region are Carthage, Cairo, Marrakech, El Gouna and the Red Sea, which is full of potential. Every festival has its own unique selling point and its own points of attraction. Carthage, for instance, has the biggest audience. The Marrakech International Film Festival is based in such a marvellous city, with close connections to Europe, with the patronage of the king, and a big budget which allows it to have a fine selection of jury members and guests. As for the Cairo International Film Festival, it has a grand legacy and a long history, as well as the very influential Egyptian cinema, and the magic of Cairo itself. On the other hand, GFF is a new festival with a fresh vision. In addition to the beauty of El Gouna as a town, the festival was able, in a short period of time, to present the most important films of world cinema. The Red Sea Film Festival promises to have a significant capacity, and will attract international interest from countries like Saudi Arabia, which is currently experiencing a radical change, making it a potential market for international cinema. There is an emerging promise in Saudi cinema, especially with the growing number of young Saudi filmmakers, But, “while each festival has its special feature of attractiveness, I still believe the number is not enough”.
However, he believes that in just three years, GFF became an industry success model. “It is a festival in a town that I myself—like many others—did not know existed, and it grew to have a notable position on the international cinema map.” He thinks that part of the reason behind such success is the mindset of Naguib Sawiris, who knows instinctively how and when to start a project, and Samih Sawiris, who established a fantastic town from scratch, and who had planned for this festival 26 years ago. Another notable factor behind the festival’s success is the harmony between its team members including Amir Ramses, the festival’s artistic director and his programming team. “For me what has been achieved in three short years is beyond imagination, and I think I have personally learned a lot through my experience with GFF, as I continue to gain confidence in my work with the third edition.”
Al Timimi believes that despite the growing success some of the ambitions are faced by limitations which could not be solved by money alone. “For example, we cannot create a film market in a region that contributes less than one per cent of the global cinema industry. This fact limits what we can reach with an international festival based in the Arab region.” But, aside from this, he adds, “I am extremely enthusiastic and optimistic about the third edition of GFF. This is especially true now that all the team members have come to own their roles; the success of El Gouna Film Festival represents the success of each and every one of us.”
For his part filmmaker Amir Ramses, GFF Artistic Director for the second year in row, believes that his position is benefiting from the growing importance of the festival. “As the festival is gaining wider space on the regional and the international level, our opportunities with the sales agents and distributers to grab the best films are improving.” Ramses refers to the remarkable increase in audience numbers as another factor and also a result of the festival’s success. “The audience number increased by 2.5 in the second round. It is also increasing this year and this is a big added value because it proves that the festival does not depend on invited guests alone. In any one hour there is over 2000 audience attending the festival’s different events. This means that GFF has become a highlight on the annual schedule of many travellers.”
For Ramses, there are two types of film festival. One is concerned with the filmmakers as its audience and the other is concerned with the public. “To make a festival which is mainly for filmmakers you have to have a film industry in the region which is not there in terms of production and distribution. So, our bet is on the audience of the cinema lovers.”Regarding the criteria of the film selection, Ramses explains it depends less on the awards a film won, but more on the programming team’s taste. “There could be an important film that does not reflect the taste of the programming team, so it does not reflect GFF.” He believes that every festival’s film selection reflects a certain signature of this or that festival. It is difficult however to see what are the main features of the GFF film selection.’s “It is not the choice of one person but of a team. Those films reflect the team taste: Intishal Al Timimi, myself, and the rest of the Programming team, Nicole Guillemet, Teresa Cavina, and Mohamed Atef.”
But what Ramses calls a festival’s signature does not mean there is no variety in the film selection in terms of nationality, genre, style and topics. “On social media era there is an illusion that we know everything about others depending on the surface information we get. I believe the role of cinema is to fight the superficiality of social media. It is a reliable window for knowledge and that is a main part of our selection criteria.”
The absence of Egyptian films from the two feature length competitions, he says, has something to do with the timing: “Both are good films but they showed up after the final selection of the required number of Arab films in the competitions.” But on the other hand “let us also ask where Egyptian film production is. At a time when there is a breakthrough in the Arab cinema in terms of quality and quantity Egyptian cinema is struggling with tons of obstacles”, he explains. “All the Arab films selected are the debuts of their filmmakers, and this on the other hand has something to do with those who are taking the lead of innovatively in cinema. They are the young filmmakers who need every support and attention.”
Among the Arab films there are two Sudanese films in the two main competitions Talking About Trees, a documentary by Sudanese director Suhaib Gasmelbari, and You Will Die at 20, a fiction film by the Sudanese director Amjad Abu Alala. Both are the feature-length debuts of their filmmakers. “Of course, they are not selected based on their nationality or that we want to encourage the film industry in one country or another. These are two of three recent Sudanese films which are touring world festivals and winning awards. For sure there is a cinema renaissance in Sudan.”
In the Short Film Competition, which has 24 films, there are 8 Arab including two Egyptian films. According to Ramses, all share the same tendency towards novelty and speaking a different cinematic language.
In the different programmes of the festival, the films closest to Ramses’ heart include Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. “It is a touching film that reminds me of the early stages of Almodóvar’s career.” They also include Les Misérables by Ladj Ly which won the jury prize at Cannes: “It follows the steps of La haine (1995) by Mathieu Kassovitz which was a landmark in European cinema history.” From the Karlovy Vary Film Festival there is also Lara by Jan-Ole Gerster. “We were eager to have it and we got it. It won the best actress award of Karlovy Vary. It is a very daring film dealing with unusual human relationships from an out of the box perspective. I wish it could be screened in local commercial film theatres.”
This year the special presentations programme is concerned with film restoration which is also the topic of an open discussion during the festival. Five restored films will be screened in the programm: Caméra d’Afriqu by Férid Boughedir, Stolen Kisses by François Truffaut, Central Station by Walter Salles, The Spider’s Stratagem by Bernardo Bertolucci, The White Sheik by Federico Fellini and the Egyptian film The Well of Deprivation by Kamal El Sheikh to celebrate the centenary of the late writer Ihsan Abdel Quddous. “Restoration is a very important topic. I believe it started to attract attention again after the restoration of Youssef Chahine’s films. But he was lucky with the co-production and the concern of his family with his legacy. This is not the case with everyone. What will happen to the rest of the 3000 Egyptian films? It is part of our legacy, part of the human legacy. Who will take care of it? I believe it is very important to talk about that.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.