Screened in the Official Selection Out of Competition section of El Gouna Film Festival, Parasite is the story of a Korean family, a boy and a girl and their parents, who live in poverty in a small basement apartment, watching a man urinating around the corner from their street-level window, folding pizza boxes for a delivery company to make some money and stealing wifi from a neighbouring coffee shop.
The action begins when the boy, Kim Ki-woo, is recommended by his friend to work as an English tutor to a girl from an upper-class family. Kim Ki-woo deliberately dresses in a sophisticated way and claims his name is Kevin as he starts to work for Park Da-hye (Jung Ziso), who falls in love with him. Planning his ruse carefully, he convinces the mother Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong) to bring his sister Jessica (Park So-dam) into the house as an art tutor for Park Da-hye’s autistic brother, hiding the fact that she is his sister.
Before too long the father Kang-ho Song and the mother have replaced the family’s driver and housekeeper as well. All is going according to plan until the former housekeeper turns up while the owners are away to find Kim’s family eating, drinking and making a mess. She too has a secret, however: she has been hiding her husband in a room connected to the same basement by a secret tunnel, and she recognises Kim and his family. Eventually the owners decide to return unexpectedly too…
The script, written jointly by Bong Joon-hoo and Jin Won Han, becomes the film’s true focus as it mixes suspense with dark comedy while everyone scampers to clean the house. Class differences come to the fore. At one point while Kim, Jessica and the father are hiding under the living room table, having failed to leave the house in time, the owner and his wife are spending the night on the couch to watch over their son in the garden when he begins to complain to her of his driver’s body odour.
He is sure he can smell it even then, he says. The contrast between the upper-class house and the basement apartment, ably captured by cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong (who also worked with Bong Joon-hoo on Snowpiercer in 2013). The last third of the 132 minutes film was too straightforward in discussing the issue at hand – something that seems to happen in all of Bong’s films: Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), Mother (2009) and Okaja (2017) – and it ends on a utopian and uncomfortably pedagogical note.
In her debut narrative feature Noura’s Dream – another highlight of El Gouna, screened in the Official Competition section – Tunisian filmmaker Hinde Boujema tells the story of Noura (Hind Sabri, who won the El Gouna Star for Best Actress), a mother of three who works in the dry cleaning department of a hospital while seeking a divorce from her husband Jamel, who is in prison, and having a relationship with another man, Lassad (Hakim Boumsaoudi). In a somewhat forced opening scene Noura and Lassad are at a female lawyer’s office when they are informed that adultery could lead to five years in prison by Tunisian law. Jamel is released thanks to an unexpected presidential pardon, and suddenly Noura finds him at her workplace asking for the house key.
Jamel begins to make Noura’s life difficult, reordering the house in her absence and forcing sex on her while their son is asleep in the same room. Abruptly, at dinner, he asks his children how long their mother has been having an affair with Lassad. He locks her out with the children inside and, though she denies everything, forces her arrange a meeting at Lassad’s garage where he and his two partners in crime beat him up.
Lassad in turn bribes the doctor in order to send Jamel back to jail. Boujemaa – who made a feature-length documentary, It Was Better Tomorrow (2012) and a short film, And Romeo Married Juliette (2014) – expertly builds up tension to a scene at the police station where they all deny they know each other. With a well written main character, Noura’s Dream is a powerful critique of patriarchy where you can smell fear in every shot. It premiered in the Discovery section of the Toronto International Film Festival and in the New Directors section in the San Sebastián Film Festival.
One remarkable participant in the Short Film Competition section is Lebanese filmmaker Wassim Geagea’s Omé (“My Mother”), winner of the El Gouna Silver Star for Short Film, the story of a nine-year-old reacting to the death of his mother by stealing the Virgin’s statue from church and telling Jesus he wouldn’t give him back his mother until his was returned to him. The 17-minute feature deals not only with life and death but also with questions of justice and religion. Geagea, who studied at the Lebanese University and earned his masters in cinema at St Joseph University in Beirut, previously made My Grandfather’s Photo, another short film.
“The story of Omé is inspired by my own true story and a lot of details in the film really resemble my life,” Geagea told me. “Most of the questions raised in the film really did occur to me in reality during my own experience. But when a filmmaker embarks on a film so closely based on his own story, there is the fear of becoming too personal and involved in a way that ruins the drama. That’s why I wrote the film with someone else so we could have a solid dramatic line to illustrate the feelings the viewer can relate to and not be bored.” The lead actor, who gives a stunning performance, ”is not a professional actor.
This was his first time in front of the camera and I searched a lot to find him. His real name is Jack, he lives with his mother in a monastery and he has his own rough story in real life and I saw in his eyes this sad look that I was searching for. I was searching for a boy who resembled at that age. After finding the boy and after his mother’s approval we worked with a group of therapists to get this result…
“The film poses a lot of controversy. I haven’t faced any backlash to date but of course the controversy of the film invites discussion and thinking about the content and I know that many people supported the film and maybe there are others who didn’t like it, but in the end that’s cinema and that is its depth and richness in creating a dialogue and a discussion that engages people. The film offers no answers, it only invites people to think and rethink the precepts of their societies.
Of course,” Gaegae responded to a question about production in the Arab world, “the film industry in the Arab world is facing various challenges due to the scarcity of money especially at the beginning of any project, but currently with the help of many funding entities and many platforms in film festivals like El Gouna, more filmmakers will find the support they need. I’m currently working on my first feature that I hope will join the CineGouna platform next year, but it’s too early to say anything about it.”
Also worth mentioning is In Vitro, a 30-minute Palestinian film directed by Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. It is set in the city of Bethlehem in a converted nuclear reactor underground. Donia (Hiam Abbas), who is in her final days, is the founder of a high-tech orchard designed to reverse the effect of an eco-apocalypse. The film is based on a dialogue in which she passes her knowledge to her daughter-successor Alia, who seems to be without memory. Much of what is said reflects questions of memory, identity and politics. Donia comments that the city of Bethlehem has always been the city of ghosts where disasters and disease are always present and survivors are only underground of the city.
In Our Synagogue, a 20-minute black and white film, the debut of Ukrainian director Ivan Orlenko, is based on Franz Kafka’s unfinished short story of the same name. Set in Eastern Europe, it is the story of a strange animal that scares the women at the synagogue. Nobody has ever seen this animal, and it is unclear why it only appears in the women’s section during prayers, but the occurrence has become an accepted and routine part of life.
CineGouna Platform Awards
The CineGouna platform awards to projects competing for creative and financial support in both development and post-production were announced at the closing ceremony on Thursday at the Marina Theatre. Present were the Festival Director Intishal Al Timimi and Festival COO Bushra as well as CineGouna Bridge Manager Size Zayed. The awards were handed out by Senior Springboard Coordinator of the CineGouna Platform Nada Howeidy.
The first award (US $15,000) went to a project in development, “Harvest” directed by “Ely Dagher” from Lebanon. This project also won the award presented by the Drosos Foundation by Omar Sameh worth another $15,000.
The second project, also from Lebanon, is “A Long Breath”, directed by Remi Itani. It is in post-production, and it won $15,000.
The project that collected a number of awards was from Egypt, “Straight to The Goal”, a film in development directed by Tamer Ashry. It won awards from sponsors iProduction ($10,000), Ergo Media Ventures ($10,000), Waraq powered by Magic Beans ($5,000) as well as $15,000 from Film Independent and the US Embassy and the chance for their screenwriter to participate in the Film Independent Forum Independent Spirit Awards Residency. The project was also offered unlimited location shooting service provided by Dakhli West El Balad presented by Moshira Adel.
El Taher Media Production sponsored an award of $15,000 presented to “Yalla, Baba!”, a project in development from Lebanon directed by Angie Obeid.
Mahmoud El Bat from the Arab Radio & Television Network (ART) awarded $15,000 to “Daughters of Abdul-Rahman”, a Jordanian film in development directed by Zaid Abu Hamdan.
The Synergy Films award of $10,000 went to a film in development from Egypt named “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai”, presented by Al Timimi. It also won $15,000 in sponsorship from Film Independent and the US Embassy for their creative producer to participate in the Film Independent Forum Residency.
The Egyptian film in post-production “Captains of Zaatari”, directed by Ali Al-Arabi, won an award of $10,000 from New Century Production and another award of $10,000 from Cell Creative Media Solutions. It also won the chance to participate in IEFTA’s Global Film Expression Initiative and a sponsorship to attend a partnering festival lab or workshop.
The Moroccan project in development “Plum Season” directed by Rim Mejdi also won the IEFTA sponsorship.
Lagoonie Film Production offered an award of $10,000 presented by Mohamed El Aad to the Tunisian film in development “Severed Head”, directed by Lotfi Achour. The Jordanian project in development “Daughters of Abdul-Rahman”, directed by Zaid Abu Hamdan won the Rotana Award of $10,000 presented by Lina Al-Rifai.
The highest award of $50,000 was sponsored by OSN, and it went the Moroccan film in development “Mica” directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi.
Cell Post Production presented an award of $10,000 and their post-production services to the Moroccan film in post production named “Our Dark 70s”, directed by Ali Essafi. The Palestinian film in development “Looking for Saadah”, directed by Areen Omari, won $5,000 sponsored by Art City for Cinema and TV production.
The winners of El Gouna Film Festival
Feature Narrative Competition
El Gouna Golden Star for Narrative Film (Trophy, certificate, and $50,000)
You Will Die at Twenty by Amjad Abu Alala
El Gouna Silver Star for Narrative Film (Trophy, certificate, and $25,000)
Corpus Christi by Jan Komasa
El Gouna Bronze Star for Narrative Film (Trophy, certificate, and $15,000)
Adam by Maryam Touzani
El Gouna Star for the Best Arab Narrative Film (Trophy, certificate, and $20,000)
Papicha by MouniaMeddour
El Gouna Star for the Best Actor (Trophy, certificate)
Bartosz Bielenia, Corpus Christi
El Gouna Star for the Best Actress (Trophy, certificate)
Hend Sabry, Noura’s Dream
Feature Documentary Competition
El Gouna Golden Star for Documentary Film (Trophy, certificate, and $30,000)
Talking About Trees by Suhaib Gasmelbari
El Gouna Silver Star for Documentary Film (Trophy, certificate, and $15,000)
143 Sahara Street by Hassen Ferhani
El Gouna Bronze Star for Documentary Film (Trophy, certificate, and $7,500)
Kabul, City in the Wind by AboozarAmini
El Gouna Star for the Best Arab Documentary Film (Trophy, certificate, and $10,000)
Ibrahim: A Fate to Define by Lina Alabed
Short Film Competition
El Gouna Golden Star for Short Film (Trophy, certificate, and $15,000)
Exam by Sonia K. Haddad
El Gouna Silver Star for Short Film (Trophy, certificate, and $7,500)
Ome by Wassim Geagea
El Gouna Bronze Star for Short Film (Trophy, certificate, and $4,000)
Flesh by Camila Kater
El Gouna Star for the Best Arab Short Film (Trophy, certificate, and $5,000)
Give Up the Ghost by Zain Duraie
Special Jury Mention
16 December by Álvaro Gago Díaz
Cinema for Humanity Audience Award
The festival’s Audience Award for a film exemplifying humanitarian themes (Trophy, certificate, and $20,000)
Les Misérables by Ladj Ly
NETPAC Award for Best Asian Film
Kabul, City in the Wind by Aboozar Amini
1982 by Oualid Mouaness
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: A moveable feast