El Gouna Film Festival: Egypt’s little Hollywood

Mona Makram Ebeid , Tuesday 2 Nov 2021

Al-Ahram Weekly reflects on El Gouna Film Festival.

Al Timimi
Al Timimi adressing the audience at the El Gouna Film Festival s closing ceremony

Last week the fifth El Gouna Film Festival (GIFF, 14-22 October) wrapped up its activities in the beautiful little town that has it all. Disaster had nearly struck some 36 hours before its opening ceremony when a fire ripped through the main open-air auditorium, but the Sinai governorate’s intervention was spot-on, and the firefighters managed to put out the fire overnight.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, the festival took the plunge and committed to a large-scale physical event with a focus on presenting new talent to global visitors with a selection of exceptional films. Thanks to the work of its director Intishal Al Timimi, Co-Founder-COO Bushra Rozza and artistic director Amir Ramses – three indefatigable and brilliant figures – over the years GFF has become a premieres filmmakers’ hub and an important platform for narrative, documentary and short films alike. Disaster struck again when Rozza had a car accident she thankfully survived, but by the end of the round Ramses had tendered his resignation. Since its inception in 2017, the festival has managed to secure the participation of the best and most important Arab productions, as well as hosting the MENA premieres of films first seen at Cannes, Venice or Toronto. This year was especially impressive. The festival honoured Egypt’s best-known action film star Ahmed Al-Sakka as well as the great Palestinian actor Mohmed Al-Bakry, who was sadly denied entry at the airport. Red carpet shenanigans aside, Darren Aronofsky’s masterclass was a major highlight. Attended by a huge audience, it drew in celebrities like actresses Youssra, Elham Shahin and Laila Elwy and directors Marianne Khoury and Inas Al-Degheidy.

Due to health concerns, despite my love of cinema, my own viewing had to be restricted to open-air screenings, but I also had the chance to attend the launch of the Noura initiative: Investing in Girls for the Bright Future of Egypt, a project undertaken by the National Council for Women (NCW), the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), the Dutch Embassy and the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development. The reception – the first public discussion of Noura – brought together Minister of Planning and Economic Development Hala Al-Said, Minister of Investment and International Cooperation Rania Al-Mashat, MCW President Maya Morsy, NCCM President Sahar Al-Sonbaty, diplomat Nabila Makram and UNFPA Egypt representative Frederika Meijer. They discussed different aspects of the future of Egypt’s nearly nine million teenage girls, from providing medical care to preventing gender-based violence.

I also happily attended Cinema in Concert, the orchestral event conducted by Ahmed Al-Saidi featuring the scores of such classic films as Amadeas and The Pianist and Platoon. Along with filmmakers from all over the world, many from South Africa, I was invited on Samih Sawiris’s boat to go dolphin watching, a cruise that also included a marine life and environmental talk focusing on the Hurghada Red Sea by award-winning marine biologist Angela Zikler. Indeed the fifth round of GFF marks the introduction of El Gouna Green Star Award which focuses on inspirational films that raise awareness on issues related to the environment, ecology or wildlife and sustainability.

As for the films themselves, I personally thought Omar Al-Zoheiri’s Feathers – which, having won the Cannes Critics Week Grand Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize, caused the biggest controversy here at home – was a beautiful art work despite the intensity with which it presented a social critique involving the plight of women in a conservative, patriarchal environment of great poverty. Some scenes prompted actors and filmmakers to walk out of the screening, and it was later publicly claimed that the film tarnished the image of Egypt abroad. But, as critic Tarek Al-Shinnawi put it, “does making art about the poor offend Egypt?” The film’s producer Mohamed Hefzy said he had known the film would be divisive, though in my view it makes such a strong case for the poor woman’s plight that the NCW should organise its own biggest possible screening. The film’s potential difficulty is rather that it uses amateur actors and an innovative style. I was pleased to see it win the GFF’s Best Arab Narrative Film.

Other winners worth mentioning include Mounira Ake’s Costa Brava (Lebanon), which won the Green Star; Teemie Nikki’s The Blind Man (Finland), which won the Golden Star (Nikki famously refused to see Titanic); Svetlana Rodina and Laurent Stoop’s Ostrov Lost Island (Sweden), which won the Cinema for Humanity qward; and the young director Sarah Al-Shazly’s Black Home (Egypt), which won the best short film award.

GIFF is committed to championing rising filmmakers and providing them with opportunities through its industry arm the CineGouna Platform, judged by some of the most accomplished filmmakers, film critics and industry professionals, this year including the Egyptian actress Menna Shalaby the first Arab actress on the jury. It is not only artists and enthusiasts who invest in the cinema. Beginning in the 1920s, nationalist entrepreneurs led by Talaat Harb, the founder of the Misr Bank, worked to develop an independent national industry. The foundation of the Egyptian film industry was laid in 1934-35 when Misr Bank established Studio Mirs, through which the industry rapidly grew. By 1948 six further studios had been built and a total of 345 full-length features produced. In the years after World War II, cinema was the most profitable industrial sector after textiles. The reasons why Egypt alone in the Arab world managed to establish a national film industry are various. Egypt has a dynamic multicultural life in which Egyptians always played an important role, and which remained relatively undisturbed by the colonial authorities. Particularly after the 1919 revolution, native Egyptians developed a stronger interest in the medium. At the same time, Studio Misr sent young Egyptians on scholarships to Europe; directors Ahmed Badrakhan and Niyazi Mustafa were among that programme’s beneficiaries.

Reviving this kind of practice, GFF is on a mission to support emerging talents and it has helped shape Egypt’s modern film industry. Enabling and giving voice to young and exceptional filmmakers, as Rozza said, will always be more important than the red carpet. As GFF executive director Amal Al-Masry says, by encouraging cultural activity, creating world-class international events, the Sawiris brothers have been able to transform tragedy into triumph.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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