Despite the pandemic, El Gouna Film Festival (GFF) had a spectacular opening at the newly launched open-air venue, the Gouna Conference and Cultural Centre last Friday. El Gouna Founder Samih Sawiris paid tribute to the late Khaled Bishara, CEO of Orascom – the company behind the development – and handed the Career Achievement Award to famed set designer Onsi Abou Seif, who in his turn dedicated to his late friend and mentor, legendary filmmaker Shady Abdel-Salam.
The opening film was the Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin.
The jury of the narrative competition, headed by British filmmaker Peter Webber, includes Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala, Chilean filmmaker Rodrigo Sepúlveda, Egyptian actor Asser Yassin and French producer Thierry Lenouvel.
Of the 16 films they are judging the young Palestinian director Ameen Nayfeh’s debut feature, 200 Meters is among the most touching. Written by Nayfeh, it won the BNL People’s Choice Award at the Venice Days and was nominated for the Golden Puffin at the Reykjavik International Film Festival. A delicate family drama that turns into a road movie, the film stars Ali Suliman as Mustafa, a construction worker who lives with his mother on one one side of the wall while his wife Salwa (Lana Zreik) and three children live 200 metres away on the opposite side. With the houses so close, they play with the lights and use the phone at bedtime to ameliorate their sense of separation.
Salwa, who legally lives there, chooses to be within Israeli territory, at least on weekdays, to save herself the hassle of taking her children to school, while Mustafa uses his work permit to work there but refuses to obtain the legal right to live in Israel, but that means suffering the stress of a daily struggle at checkpoints in and out, which Suliman portrays with brilliant subtlety, slowly building up tension as the drama moves towards a crescendo. When he suddenly realises his permit has expired and is not allowed to go to work – he cannot renew it during the weekend, which is when this happens to happen, but now Salwa calls to say their son is in hospital – Mustafa tries to sneak in with the help of a smuggler who charges US$100 per person.
As the road trip begins Nayfeh introduces the viewer to Mustafa’s fellow passengers: Rami (Mahmoud Abu Eita), Kifah (Motaz Malhees) and a German photographer named Anne (Anna Unterberger), each representing a category of person that can be found in Palestine. The journey is filled with danger, with too many obstacles and detours as Mustafa desperately tries to reach his son in hospital. The film’s strength is in the simplicity of its premise and how, eschewing ideas and rhetoric, Nayfeh manages to complicate the ordinary and the day-to-day.
Born in 1988, Nayfeh graduated from Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem with a BSc in nursing in 2010 but went on to earn an MFA from the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts in Jordan in 2012. His filmography includes a number of short narrative and documentary films, most recently The Crossing (2017).
“I’ve had the idea for this film since I was a student at the cinema institute ten years ago,” he said at the press conference following the screening. “At one point I was supposed to present a film premise, and I choose this idea since it is what I live through daily, what I see and know. The screenplay took eight drafts to write. It’s a true story, of course, the story of thousands Palestinians.
A lot of people think that this wall has been there forever. Before the wall, there were already barriers to movement but when the construction of the wall began in 2002 these barriers began to grow till its completion in 2005, when it became much more difficult. Post-wall I suddenly realised that a lot of my family members like my grandmother and my uncles lived on the other side. Pre-wall, the distance between us was just 15 minutes by car, now they were very far away. So I grew up with this obsession about the wall, which I could see from my house all the time – not exactly the way it is in the film, maybe not so close, but it was always in sight.”
Also present at the screening was producer May Odeh, who won GFF’s Variety magazine award for her work on the film. “I was keen on this film,” she said, “because finally here was a young Palestinian from Palestine living Palestinian reality who decided to make a film without the clichés or slogans and present bare-bones reality with all its complexities.”
Another debut about borders – screened in the official selection out of competition – is the French-Spanish coproduction Josep, directed by the award-winning French cartoonist and editorial journalist Aurélien Froment (Aurel). Set in 1939, the 74-minute animation is about Spanish republicans fleeing Franco’s dictatorship across the Pyrenees, where 500,000 of them were settled in refugee camps in Argelès and Rivesaltes, France.
It opens with a French teenager, Valentin, visiting his dying grandfather, a former gendarme named Serge, who tells him a story which, being good at drawing, Valentin proceeds to sketch. The story concerns the time when Serge was a camp guard and ended up befriending the Spanish illustrator and newspaper cartoonist Josep Bartoli, one of the refugees in question.
The film depicts the harsh conditions under which the Spanish refugees lived. Humiliated by French guards while facing illness and hunger, often without enough drinking water, their various factions – communists, anarchists and Trotskyists, the latter affording a glimpse of Frida Kahlo in post-war Mexico – were fighting among themselves. None of this prevents Josep from drawing everything in sight, which he does while searching for his partner Maria Valdès, whose disappearance during the exodus Serge begins to investigate. The end result is a masterpiece of historical cinema, blending colour with black-and-white and making the most of Bartoli’s original drawings with powerful acting and a coherent storyline.
Women’s empowerment seminar
Born in 1976, Aurel graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts de Nantes in 2000 and qualified as a film projectionist in the same year. His work has appeared at biennales like Venice, Sydney and Dakar. Since 2007, he has been working for the French daily Le Monde. He discovered the story of Josep Bartoli 10 years ago through a book about the Spanish exodus of 1939 which was illustrated with Josep’s drawings which caught his eye, and he spend the last 10 years exploring and researching the topic.
Of the 18 features in the short film competition, highlights should definitely include Italian filmmaker Jasmine Trinca’s Being My Mom – a 12-minute tour of Rome without dialogue in which a mother and daughter seem to exchange roles – which was selected for the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival.
Greek filmmaker Dimitris Anagnostou’s Mare Nostrum – also without dialogue but with narration – is another. Set in the 19th century, the 26-minute film depicts a group of aristocratic Grand Tour voyagers headed to Arcadia to see the ancient ruins. A century later a dead body washes up on the exact spot where those voyagers gathered. Three sequences feature the same place in the 19th century, at present, and in a kind of temporal collage.
In the 19-minute Macedonian film Sticker, directed by Georgi M. Unkovski, Dejan (Sasko Kocev), who fails to obtain his car sticker after renewing his car registration, becomes a victim not only of bureaucracy but also of police brutality when he is prevented from attending his daughter’s school play, to which he is carrying a huge toy horse in the passenger seat, and is dragged to the police station where unexpected things happen.
Rubén Barbosa’s 18-minute Influencer is an expose of the discrepancy between reality and lucrative social media images of it. It depicts the life of a typical social media celebrity who, when her phone is stolen, loses four million followers – only to have her mother die on the same day.
Held at the TU Berlin University, the fourth CineGouna Platform (25-29 October) opened with a conversation with Indian star Ali Fazal. Moderated by Bushra Rozza and Raman Chawla, it shed light on Fazal’s Hollywood career and some of the significant roles he played in such films as Stephen Frears’s Victoria and Abdul (2017), a biographical satire based on a true story about the relationship between Queen Victoria and her Indian Muslim servant Abdul Karim, with Fazal starring opposite Judi Dench. Fazal’s latest role is Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile (2020), based on Agatha Christie’s eponymous murder mystery, also starring Branagh, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer and Rose Leslie.
Ali Fazal’s seminar
The second day of the CineGouna Bridge featured the panel discussion “Women’s Empowerment through Film”, moderated by TV presenter, producer and film journalist Raya Abirached with French-Algerian journalist and filmmaker Dorothee Myriam Kellou, Egyptian actress Menna Shalaby, Indian actress Richa Chadha, Palestinian filmmaker Najwa Najjar and French-Egyptian filmmaker and visual artist Jihan El Tahri as panelists.
Focusing on gender inequality in the Egyptian industry, both Tahri and Shalaby – the latter citing her experience in Hala Khalil’s Ahla Al-Awqat, in which the cast was mostly female – explained that while the situation is improving there is still a huge gap in female representation, especially in decision making. Najjar described the situation in Palestine as quite similar.
As for the CineGouna Spring Board, it selected 12 projects in development (nine narratives and three documentaries), including The Day of Arafah by Ala’a Al Qaisi (Jordan), Goodbye Julia by Mohamed Kordofani (Sudan), Hamlet from the Slums by Ahmed Fawzi-Saleh (Egypt), Seeking Haven for Mr Rambo Khaled Mansour (Egypt), Big Boys Don’t Cry by Muhammad Mustapha (Egypt), Bye Bye Tiberias by Lina Soualem (Palestine). It also selected six films in post-production (five narratives and one documentary), including Communion by Nejib Belkadhi (Tunisia) and Harvest by Ely Dagher (Lebanon).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly