Interview with Marianne Khoury, artistic director of El-Gouna Film Festival

Nahed Nasr , Tuesday 4 Jul 2023

This week El Gouna Film Festival named the prominent filmmaker Marianne Khoury artistic director of the sixth round, with which the festival is resuming its activities after a year-long hiatus. Khoury said the decision reflects shared goals and expectations.

Marianne Khoury


“They expect me to give the festival what I’ve proven myself capable of, nothing else. What I used to do is clear, so I see this step as an extension of what I have already achieved. At the same time, I am proud that I can contribute to getting the festival to where it wants to be.”


Khoury grew up inside the film industry, where she began her production career with the films of her uncle, the iconic director Youssef Chahine, followed by a series of successful production adventures with directors who were to become among the most prominent: Asmaa Al-Bakri, Yousry Nasrallah and Radwan Al-Kashef. She remains a managing partner in Misr International Films, the production house Chahine founded, and she also directed and produced her own films, the latest being the award-winning  documentary feature Let’s Talk (2019).


But perhaps the most remarkable achievement in Khoury’s career is paving the way to a solid independent film scene, not only in terms of production, but also by developing the culture for watching this type of film.


In 2014, Khoury established Zawya, the first art house cinema in Egypt, which was to  become a destination for a growing audience keen on alternative – as opposed to commercial or mainstream – films from all over the world. The space is also a platform for screening independent Arab films that might not find their way to commercial distribution in major cinemas. Khoury undoubtedly contributed to the creation of an alternative cinematic culture and destabilising the traditional cinematic map, at least in Cairo where Zawya is located.


In addition Zawya, which also hosts a range of festivals and screening programs, including the European Film Panorama, founded by Khoury in 2004 – ten years before Zawya itself – in 2012 Khoury also established the Dahshur Residence. Located 40 km south of Cairo, a stone’s throw from Sneferu’s bent pyramid, the Dahshur Residence is an informal training platform targeting emerging filmmakers through workshops with unique topics in different fields of filmmaking.


Khoury is especially proud of this project, which she sees as a model of her vision for supporting independent cinema and the crowning achievement of all the adventures marking her career.


Khoury says that Dahshur Residence started when she decided to develop six film projects by up-and-coming filmmakers in Dahshur in 2012. But the idea of supporting independent filmmakers as they develop their projects had been with her since 2009 when she contributed  to the launch of the first Cairo Film Connection, a platform to support the film industry, at the Cairo International Film Festival.


“My vision for project development in independent cinema is based on the skills a filmmaker can acquire to develop a film, working with limited resources. After I graduated, for a while I was in banking, and when I joined Youssef Chahine, I entered the cinema through the budget door: how to use software to transform the script into numbers. This expanded my vision of how to make films. The development of a film project goes through many stages and requires skills that filmmakers, especially in independent cinema, must acquire, and not all of those are artistic skills.”


Khoury defines independent films as those not supported by a major studio, which do not have large budgets, and are backed by filmmakers who are not part of the system. These films and their makers need quality support. “This is what we are trying to do in the Dahshur Residence workshops,” she explains.


In 2012, the first Dahshur Residence workshops were launched. Six feature film scripts were developed with screenwriter and script consultant Jacques Akchoti and producer Maia Malas. The workshop included a group of emerging filmmakers such as Mohamed Hammad, Dina Hamza, Mohamed Ramadan, Tamer Abdel Hamid, Iman El Najjar, Yasser Naim, and Ahmed Qadri.


“The dilemma of independent films doesn’t lie in the production stage, but rather in pre-production. At this stage, the filmmakers are developing the idea, but also their  vision of the nature, method, and details of production. I learned from Youssef Chahine that if you have a million, you should aim to make your film as if you had only 10,000. How to achieve your vision with limited human and material resources, how to create something out of very little or nothing – that is an essential creative skill. The filmmaking process is an exciting journey with no ready-made solutions, but rather a creative process of experimentation and accumulated attempts to overcome challenges and reach solutions.”


But the establishment of the Dahshur Residence itself was a creative process full of experimentation. Marianne says she fell in love with the village of Dashour 35 years ago when she was invited to lunch with Youssef Chahine at a friend’s house there. “For me,” she says, “the place was a dazzling and very exotic experience: the desert, the pyramids, and the greenery all in one place. A few years later, shortly after the birth of [my daughter] Sarah, I thought that I should have a green retreat away from the city, so Dahshur immediately came back to my mind and I started looking for a piece of land here.” The piece of land turned into a family house, and many artist friends participated in its design. She started building it in the early 1990s.


“I wanted a nature-friendly house that would contain and integrate its visitors, yet allow each one of them to enjoy privacy at the same time. The house was built gradually and organically, until it became what it is today. Now we have a professional screening hall that can accommodate 90 people, in addition to 15 rooms. Some are single, and others  can accommodate up to three visitors. Each room has a name, and one of them, on the ground floor, is named after Youssef Chahine, as it used to be his room whenever he visited Dahshur. There is no better place to accommodate a group of filmmakers engaged in the exciting process of building their films away from the hustle and bustle of everyday  for several days.”


Three of the film projects developed during the first Dahshur workshop in 2012 including Suicidal Notions (2015) by Iman Al-Najjar, and The Time Will Come (2014) by Dina Hamza have already seen the light.


Since then, many workshops have been held in Dahshur with some of them taking place on an annual basis and most provided either for reasonable price or, if they are supported by other cultural bodies, for free. “We faced many challenges in securing sufficient resources for the workshops, but we never stopped because we and the participants, whether trainers or trainees, all have the passion to continue. We are always able to come up with collective solutions which everyone is part of.”


The idea is for filmmakers to spend several days together in isolation from the outside world, comparing notes, seeing films, and probing the core of their projects as well as communicating with expert trainers in various fields. This allows them to develop organic relations with each other too.


“There is that kind of collective energy that emerges,” she says. Dahshur workshops, according to Khoury, are a life experience that is not limited to practising filmmaking, but rather acquiring a different and creative collective life experience, including the dining experience. “The place evolves with people, with its people. It develops through a constant search for solutions to reach the goals. Perhaps the Dahshur project itself is part of my own lifelong search.”


Khoury believes the Dahshur Residence has been developing organically, and it is now in a more advanced stage.


“Perhaps we need to design our programs in a way that ensures that development is not only organic, but intentional. For example, many of the participants in Dahshur workshops actually attend more than one workshop at different times. We may need to design programs that include various skills within a single workshop.”


According to Khoury, filmmakers are now facing difficult challenges. The journey they go through trying to find a balance between their ambitions and the need to earn a living is a difficult one. Most film school graduates and those who work in the industry do not have enough time to develop their projects because they are forced to work the wheel of daily life. In the last 20 years, there have been platforms to support films, but they are very competitive, which puts pressure on filmmakers to keep pace with these developments in order to be able to find an opportunity.


“What we are trying to do is to make filmmakers aware of all the stages of filmmaking because that is essential to their development, but they also learn how to think creatively about producing their films. The key is that as long as you believe in something, you will find a way to achieve it, whatever the challenges.”


Over 12 years, Dahshur Residence has presented a series of workshops that are flexible and responsive to the requirements of filmmakers on the independent scene. Among these workshops, the Self-Reference Cinema workshop by filmmaker Basel Ramsis aims to develop the participants’ abilities through personal work, starting from film diaries to producing cinematic material that represents them, their lives and their realities.


In the Script Development Programme with the prominent script consultant Ayman El-Amir writers and directors develop their feature films through building original screenplays with well-developed characters, strong dramaturgy, and a consistent narrative and visual style. The Creating with Archives workshop with Béatrice De Pastre, head of the  Archive Department and Cinematic Heritage in the National Cinematographic and animated image Centre (CNC), explores how participants could select and merge archival material, video, audio or visual, in order to enrich the narrative elements of their documentary or fiction project.


In the Aflamgeya Workshop director and writer Amr Salama shares his expertise and stories with the film and television industries. In the Project Lab for the Robert Bosch Stiftung Film Prize, which is hosted by several experts, a number of subjects are discussed, including co-production, the Arab and German market, legal aspects, festival strategies, distribution and funding opportunities.


The Book-to-Film Adaptation workshop run by the renowned writer May Telmissany examines the multiple connections between literature and cinema. The Creative Writing and Development workshop with the Egyptian-French writer and director Namir Abdel Messeeh aims to help participants work on their writing process. The Film Critics workshop with the renowned French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon allows participants to experiment with the practice of film criticism. The Three-minute Film workshop is an  immersive 10 day residency program with the filmmaker and visual artist Karin  Westerlund.


The most recent activities of the Dahshur Residence are a series of workshops in cooperation with the US Embassy. They include the short film workshop where the participants have the opportunity to develop a short film from Concept to Completion. It is run by several experts including the prominent Egyptian screenwriter and director Ahmed Amer, the American-British script consultant Margaret Glover, the Egyptian cinematographer Tarek Hefni, the Egyptian producer Mohamed Taymor, and the Egyptian sound designer Ahmed Gaber.


Upcoming workshops include the 3D Screenwriting – Writing with the Actor in Mind, with the American filmmaker and founder of 3D Screenwriting Maggie Soboil, and Full-length Creative Documentaries with Egyptian director Marouan Omara and the American writer, filmmaker and film editor Blair McClendon.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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