Over only four rounds since its launch in 2016, El Gouna Film Festival (GFF, 14-22 October) has become indispensable to the region’s film scene. Whether through a program that includes some of the most prominent recent productions in the Arab world and beyond, by supporting film projects in development or postproduction, or hosting high-profile figures, the event has left an indelible mark. Both its director Intishal Al Timimi and artistic director Amir Ramses have a lot to say.
Al Timimi stresses sustainability, which has proved elusive elsewhere on the Arab art and culture scene in the light of the difficult conditions with which the region is periodically faced. Thanks to ambition and focus, he says, in five years GFF has been able to establish itself and stand out.
“I’m reasonably satisfied with the international position we have attained in such a short period of time, with much of the filmmaking communities knowing about El Gouna Film Festival and the town of El Gouna. For GFF’s fifth round, thanks to our growing organisational capability as well as a by now much more experienced team, I’m looking forward to maintaining the same passion and zeal with which we embarked on the inaugural round because that’s our safety valve, and it can never be in conflict with efficiency.”
When rigid routines and inflexible regulations dominate a project, he says, that project’s connection with the surroundings suffers.
“Even though we had the least experience at the time, the inaugural round was the greatest. It created a new challenge, not just for the festival but for the whole community. Afterwards, neither the press nor the film industry could accept a lower standard. Our diligence in maintaining the spirit of innovation and spontaneity is the reason behind our success.”
According to Al Timimi, the presence of a rigorous system in any event protects it from falling into disarray, and such order is achieved through a range of measures including easy access to the information, knowledge and data that the work generates for all members of the team. “This prepares and enables us to handle all kinds of situations that arise during planning and execution.”
He also praises cooperation among team members, the way everyone feels they are part of the festival regardless of their job or age. In the last four years the team has included some 180 volunteers aged 16-19. “I would also like to say that before GFF, there had been no sizable volunteer culture in Egyptian film festivals, whereas prestigious international film festivals rely on armies of volunteers.”
His own job can be divided into several complementary tasks, with the program remaining the top priority since the inaugural round. “We insist on every film being a MENA premiere, and we’re determined to overcome even huge obstacles like Covid to maintain this.”
As for technical quality, it depends on equipment; without state of the art projection even the best films look pale. “And so we have poured a lot of effort into the technical aspects of our projection systems. Our technical facilities have been strong and our arrangements meticulous, so we haven’t had to postpone a single film screening in any round.”
Together with the co-production market launched in the first GFF, the presence of filmmakers is a high priority. Attendance rose from 18 to 22 thousand between the first round and the second alone, reflecting the concept of the festival as an opportunity to visit a resort town to participate in cinematic activities. “The guests made up half the audience in the first three rounds, but only a third in the fourth, which means its public appeal is improving steadily – and that is true of our sponsors and partners as well as artists too.”
Al Timimi believes that two factors inspired the confidence of the El Gouna film fraternity even before the festival officially began.
“The first is the confidence and trust that the Sawiris name inspired in others as well as the financial support it promised and delivered. But the second is the diversity of backgrounds combined with the unity of purpose of the GFF team. Many points of view are expressed and taken into account; in addition to an uncompromising focus on fresh, innovative and creative cinematic voices from the region and, indeed, all parts of the world.”
Through its program’s distinctive artistic footprint, GFF has become an important platform for feature narrative and short films as well as documentaries. “Short film distributors now consider GFF to be one of the major film festivals for short films, along with Cannes and Venice.”
Regarding the emergence of new film festivals in the region, he says that will reflect positively on the Arab world and its reputation. “The biggest positive factor is that healthy competition keeps us all on our toes and makes us much more observant and enthusiastic, pushing us into a more creative and innovative in approach”.
For its upcoming, fifth round, GFF was able to secure the participation of the best and most important Arab productions as well as attracting a significant portion of the those films that premiered at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto or San Sebastián, among others. But the future depends on how the festival approaches its work. “Generally speaking, I imagine that every place has its own limitations and forms of censorship, and also its own ideas on how to overcome those issues. What we must do is continue to cooperate because conflict has never done anyone any good since the beginning of time.”
The selections for the fifth CineGouna Platform (CGP) include directors who have films screening in the upcoming edition and previous recipients of the platform’s support. Al Timimi says a film event attracts likeminded artists. “Filmmakers place their trust in GFF and, likewise, the festival has faith in their abilities and is prepared to go the distance for them.”
The worth of a project, he adds, is not in the names involved but in its quality. “We do not revolve around big names or geographic representation, and that is what makes the CineGouna Platform one of the most prominent platforms on the Arab level. It also doubles as a bridge linking Arab films to the big international festivals.”
One of CGP’s notable successes is this round’s film Hanging Gardens by the Iraqi director Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji, which won the official Jury Prize at the 2021 Final Cut in Venice Workshop. “This film was supported by GFF two years ago while it was in development and is being supported again in the post-production phase. The sole reason for such continuous support is our admiration for this ambitious project.”
Regarding newly introduced programs, this round will feature the launch of the El Gouna Green Star Award, an environmental film competition reviewed by a specialised jury. It includes five films.
GFF will also be hosting the second Filmlab: Palestine and Cinephilia Productions’ Sunbird Stories, which focuses on short films centred on and made for children and adolescents in the Arab world. For the next three rounds, Sunbird Stories will be presenting prizes in its workshop’s finale during the festival.
As of this year, the FIPRESCI Prize will be awarded to a debut by an Asian or African filmmaker rather than the best Arab film.
There is also the Khaled Bichara Award, which was developed this year to focus on short films, and includes 120 Egyptian projects. “I believe that this competition is one of our most vital additions, as it has brought to GFF a community that may have had difficulty reaching it.”
For his part artistic director Amir Ramses, himself a filmmaker, feels that GFF’s achievement is its connection with international sales agents, distributors, and filmmakers, which has evolved over five rounds. “Compared to the first round, there is now a growing confidence in El Gouna Film Festival and a keenness to screen the most prominent films in the festival, which you can see in our program.”
What Ramses aspires to in future rounds is greater openness to a variety of cinematic styles and approaches through competitions that can accommodate them. He says that this kind of development usually occurs after the festival has reached a degree of stability. This year, for example, the festival includes a few experimental films. “But I hope that there will be a full program of experimental films in the future, among other cinematic styles”.
Another important achievement is that the challenge posed by the El Gouna Film Festival through its previous editions has had a positive impact on the quality of films and programs in other festivals.
This round has the greatest number of Egyptian films, which reflects the cyclical nature of Egyptian production. This year there were too many outstanding films for an international festival to accommodate, and yet, Ramses says, there could still be more Egyptian films.
This round has a specifically French flavour, he adds. “I can say that about 10 percent of the program is Egyptian, 10 percent French. But the flavour I mean is as much about quality and names as quantity.” There is The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson, which had its world premiere was at Cannes, Everything Went Fine by François Ozon, Another World by Stephane Brize, Happening, the winner of the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival ,by Audrey Diwan, and Drift Away by Xavier Beauvois.
Ramses found it hard to choose from among a large number of outstanding Arab films, some of which it was painful to turn down. The same can be said of film projects, the number of which rose to 13 despite the logistical pressure this places on the program.
Honoured this year is the Palestinian Mohamed Bakri, an actor who has starred in both international and Arab films as well as a significant director. “This is a moment when Bakri needs Arab support more than ever, in light of the restrictions imposed on him by the occupation because of his documentary film, Jenin, Jenin. He deserves all the praise and support he can get.”
Also honoured is the Egyptian movie star Ahmed Al-Sakka who, “like it or not, has helped to change the Egyptian cinematic landscape, especially in the action genre, raising professional standards”.
The celebrated American director Darren Aronofsky, whose collaboration with cinematographer Matthew Libatique has created a influential visual trademark, is giving a master class. “He has many admirers and students in the Arab region.”
Krzysztof Kieslowski, whom Ramses regards as “one of the ten most important directors in the history of world cinema”, is being celebrated on his 25th death anniversary.
As for his own work, Ramses feels El Gouna may have slowed him down a little, but that is a sacrifice worth making.
“It allowed me to do something else that I also love to do in terms of, for example, the large number of films I got to see during those five years. The hope is for us to reach a stage of stability that allows me to work faster as a director.”