Held in spite of Covid 19, the 4th El Gouna Film Festival (GFF, 23-31 October) will be the third festival to take place this year after Venice (2-12 September) and San Sebastian (18-26 September), the first in an Arab country. In June the decision was made to delay it by one month, and festival director Intishal Al Timimi says that, provided that was possible, it was important not to miss a year:
“In June, all global indicators showed the world was getting back on track. But the main factors in our decision were the nature and location of the festival and its open-air venues. Thanks to its size and population density, El Gouna makes it safe, and the ministries of health, tourism and culture all did their part.”
I am Afraid to Forget Your Face
Logistical precautions that don’t compromise “the prestigious image the festival has built” include 60 as opposed to over 80 films (from 48 countries) so that a greater number of screenings, with a 90-minute gap allowing effective disinfection of the open-air theatres following each, make social distancing possible. A mask policy and the use of thermometers at entryways completes the picture.
This was based on careful observation of the protocols followed at international artistic and sporting events, especially Venice, which “paved the way not only for us but for the Toronto International Film Festival and the San Sebastian International Film Festival as well as the Busan International Film Festival, which is coming up soon.”
Accommodating travel restrictions, GFF is expanding its virtual platforms such as Festival Scope and Cinado, which gave guests the opportunity to see festival films for a month after closing. This year the service is available to a greater number. Many CineGouna Platform project presentations and discussions, panels and masterclasses will also take place online, allowing for over 500 participants, more than ever before.
Nor has the dearth of productions since Covid affected the quality of the lineup. “Since 2017 our rigorous selection process has made quality the strongest aspect of the festival,” Al Timimi says. “There was a huge number of projects to choose from for the CineGouna Springboard too, making this the best year ever.” Despite the economic situation undermining financial support, the Platform – which started out with US$60 thousand and reached US$240 thousand last year – was able to reach its goal this year too.
Ramses and Timimi
The French-Moroccan actor Saïd Taghmaoui was to receive the Career Achievement Award for a non-Egyptian Arab but, being a lover of the late actor, insisted on the Omar Sharif Award instead. This award was granted in the first GFF only but it was brought back to that end this year, enabling GFF to grant the Career Achievement Award this year to two instead of one Egyptian figures: actor Khaled El Sawy and set designer Onsi Abou Seif, both “models of cinematic passion”.
Al Timimi says it is always difficult to choose because there are too many figures of a high calibre, considering that the object is not celebrating a career at its end but honouring an ongoing contribution. Also honoured is French actor Gérard Depardieu, who will receive the international Career Achievement Award for his “distinctive and influential participation in the film industry”, generating a social media storm concerning Depardieu’s alleged pro-Israel views, which Al Timimi has decided not to involve himself with.
For his part the GFF artistic director filmmaker Amir Ramses felt the challenge – effectively overcome, with a lineup that includes official-selection films from Berlin, Cannes, Venice and others – was not so much too few productions but filmmakers hoping for better commercial conditions next year choosing to postpone the release of their work. “Both the industry and festivals are coming back even though the pandemic is not over,” Ramses says, “so there is a kind of adapting worldwide which gives us hope in the near future.”
Highlights include films from countries not previously represented including In Between Dying by Hilal Baydarov from Azerbaijan in the Narrative Feature Competition, which was in Venice’s official competition: “This is one of the most beautiful films I saw at the 77th Venice Film Festival this year, and the strongest film in its official competition.” Another such film, also from Venice, is Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic’s Quo Vadis, Aida?, which is “the most emotionally intense film I have watched this year”.
In Between Dying
On the programme are also two award-winning films that were part of the CineGouna Springboard: 200 Meters by Palestinian filmmaker Ameen Nayfeh, and The Man Who Sold His Skin by Tumisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania: “I see them as the most important Arab productions this year. It is also very important that the GFF name is attached to them, and that both are coming back to GFF after their success in Venice, with Ben Hania’s film winning the Orizzonti Award for Best Actor and Nayfeh’s film the BNL People’s Choice Award at the 17th Venice Days.”
Ramses feels The Man Who Sold His Skin especially is in a league of its own among Arab productions, testifying to the originality of “a director who is concerned with the cinematic language as much as the subject”, imbuing otherwise widespread themes with a unique visual qualities and cinematic power.
The Man Who Sold His Skin
Equally interesting is the short film lineup, including the only Egyptian contributions to the festival: Sameh Alaa’s I am Afraid to Forget Your Face, and Sandro Canaan’s The Other Cheek. “Alaa’s is the first Egyptian film to be selected for the Official Short Film Competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 50 years,” Ramses remarks.
“It also was also selected for the San Sebastian film festival and it will be screened at Cannes at the same time as its screening at the GFF.” On the whole he is “100-percent satisfied” with each and every film on the programme, though he would’ve included more if not for Covid strictures.
CineGouna Springboard selection and revision mechanisms have improved too, he says, to guarantee a geographically diverse jury and greater neutrality: “We have to choose 12 development and six postproduction projects out of over 100 submissions, and we usually feel we want to support at least double that number.”
But CineGouna’s record demonstrates GFF’s ability to see potential: “Promising film projects are based on the quality of the screenplay, the director’s style, the universal vision of the idea, the treatment, and a clear and visible production plan. It is not that there is a more interesting theme or subject for support but there is a more interesting way of telling a story, which is all the art of cinema is about.”
The Other Cheek
The end result is all the more remarkable since preparations started in May, a period Ramses calls “a nightmare” since “we had too little time to learn everything from Venice, and also to improvise”. Every element of the festival had to be revisited: “But this was unavoidable, since it is part of our sense of responsibility as a film event yearly anticipated by Arab filmmakers and also part of the international industry as a space for Arab premieres. We could not bury our heads in the sand and say let’s wait one year.”
Generally speaking, he believes the success of GFF will be the first step on the way to adaptation. It will impart a sense of security to other film festivals starting with the Cairo International Film Festival CIFF: “We cannot just stay home waiting for it to end. This would be an ice age hibernation that could lead to extinction.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly