El Gouna Film Festival launches with grand ambitions

The first El Gouna Film Festival began last Friday in the luxury resort town 500 kilometers southeast of Cairo that lends its name to the event’s title.

Running through September 29, the festival’s organizers have expressed hope that it will come to occupy an important space in the Egyptian and regional cinema landscape. This is evident in the festival’s timing. It comes in the wake of large-scale international film festivals, like the Toronto International Film Festival, Venice International Film Festival, Berlinale and Cannes, allowing Gouna’s organizers to select films that had garnered acclaim there, but it also slotted just before regional festivals like Cairo’s Panorama of the European Film Festival in November and the Dubai International Film Festival.

The Abu Dhabi Film Festival previously benefited from this time slot, until it was scrapped in 2014. The similarities between two festivals extend to the choice of artistic director, as Gouna’s organizers selected Iraq’s Intishal al-Tamimi to serve as the festival’s artistic director, a role he had occupied as the director of the Arab films program at Abu Dhabi for eight years. He also ran the Abu Dhabi festival’s Sanad Fund, which, until last year, played a major role in supporting the production of Arabic-language films.

Gouna has also adopted an idea similar to the Sanad Fund: its CineGouna Platform is meant to be a hub for filmmakers and industry representatives, including producers, distributors, film sales agents and staff at regional and international television channels and networks. Its committee selected 16 creative projects in the pre- and post-production stages to receive support, and it has arranged for their creators to meet with producers and distributors during the festival. It will also present six awards granting financial and technical support partnership from the festival’s main sponsors: New Century, Creative Media Ventures (Ebda3), Mentor Arabia, Film Factory and AROMA Studios.

The idea and the organizers

According to the organizers, actor, singer and producer Bushra Rozza came up with the idea for the festival. She has worked extensively with producer Kamel Zadeh, who is the Gouna festival’s financial manager. The resort town of Gouna is owned by Samih Sawiris and his holding company, Orascom Development. After Rozza successfully pitched the festival to the Sawirises, they placed Amr Mansy, who previously organized two squash tournaments in Gouna, in charge of its organization, and appointed Rozza as chief operating officer of the company organizing the event.

Several well known filmmakers and big names in the culture industry sit on the festival’s advisory board, including Palestinian actor and director Hiam Abbas, directors Abderrahmane Sissako, Yousry Nasrallah and Mohamed Malas.   

The festival is sponsored by companies such as the US-based Carrier Corporation and the Sawiris-owned Orascom Group, in addition to media partners such as Euronews, Promomedia, ONTV and Variety.

The US Embassy in Cairo has also partnered with the El Gouna Film Festival to present the American Film Showcase, a program run by the US State Department, which is billed to highlight films with a “humanitarian” element and a focus on those that counter “extremist” narratives and “terrorism.”

The embassy is also hosting a series of workshops and mentoring sessions, including a five-day screening workshop with Arabic-language writers working on their first or second narrative feature film. According to the festival’s literature, two US filmmakers, screenwriter and director Richard Tanne (Southside with You, 2016) and producer and screenwriter Jeff Stockwell (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, 2002), will lead workshops with a group of filmmakers, screenwriters and directors from Egypt and the MENA region.

Sections and prominent international films

Egyptian director Amir Ramses, the director of Jews of Egypt (2013), is heading the festival’s programming team, alongside Teresa Cavina and Raman Chawla, who previously worked with Tamimi at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

There are three official competitions at the El Gouna Film Festival — for narrative features, documentary features and shorts — which, in addition to parallel competitions and special screenings, are running alongside the official program.

Big prize-winning titles include the two films that received Berlin’s Silver Bears. The Other Side of Hope (2017) won Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki the prize for best director. The Franco-Senegalese film Félicité (2017) by Alain Gomis won the Silver Bear Grand Jury prize and will be screened at Gouna’s official selection outside the competition. The Swedish film The Square (2017), which received the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, was also selected.  

Films from Egypt and the region

Egypt is represented in the official feature and documentary films competitions by three works: Amr Salama’s Sheikh Jackson (2017), which was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival where it participated on the margins of the competition; Photocopy, the first feature by director Tamer Ashry, starring Mahmoud Hemida and Sherine Reda; and the documentary I Have a Picture: Film No. 1001 in the Life of the Oldest Extra in the World by Mohamed Zedan.

Several important Arab films are also being screened, including The Insult (2017) by Ziad Doueiri, who was recently detained at Beirut airport and released, allegedly for his movie The Attack (2012), which ignited public debate in Lebanon as it was partly filmed in Israel. Doueiri’s film is competing in the official competition for feature films, which also screens Volubilis (2016) by Faouzi Bensaïdi, whose film Death for Sale (2011) was recently screened at Cairo’s Zawya cinema. The Arabic-language documentaries include 17 by Jordan’s Widad Shafakoj and Of Sheep and Men (2017) by Algerian-Swiss director Karim Sayad.  

The program also features notable films that have been released this year, including Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto, in which Cate Blanchett performs historical manifestos as 13 different characters. It premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Gouna also presents Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary 78/52 (2017), which explores the murder scene in the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho (1960).

Translated by Assmaa Naguib. Mada Masr will be providing more details about the El Gouna Film Festival and its short film competition soon.

Ahmed Refaat 

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