Margins within margins: What does El Gouna Film Festival’s industry platform really offer independent Arab filmmakers?
The courtyard at TU Berlin’s Gouna Campus - Courtesy: Gouna Film Festival

The central courtyard at the Technical University of Berlin’s Gouna campus — El Gouna Film Festival’s (GFF) operational base — was almost never empty. Festival attendees would gather there every morning and, in between films, debate, rant and speculate. The source of the tangible energy that flowed across that small, square area was none other than the fact it was where the different events of CineGouna, the festival’s industry platform, took place — from talks by iconic names in the industry to sessions where filmmakers presented their projects in hopes of a chance to acquire funds that could go toward their production or completion.

Director Daoud Abdel Sayed is discussing Fellini, while Marianne Khoury walks in with a loud, witty comment about the festival’s opening ceremony. A filmmaker acquaintance waves to me as she makes her way to the cafeteria for a bite to eat before the next pitch session begins. It is a flurry of activity, a vortex of conversations about the film industry in Egypt and beyond, a pit where hope and frustration spar in every sentence uttered.

The platform was founded last year with the intention of providing artistic and financial support to emerging filmmakers from Egypt and the Arab region. It consists of two divisions: CineGouna Bridge, where various workshops, panel discussions and masterclasses take place, and

CineGouna Springboard, where a number of works-in-progress by Arab filmmakers are selected for pitching before a jury for a shot at winning financial awards.

While it hosted 10 competing projects last year, submissions to CineGouna increased from 55 to 145 this year, and, as a result, the number of selected projects to take part in the platform has grown to 18. Similarly, the sum of financial awards offered has grown from US$60,000 to $150,000 — only $30,000 of which is given by the festival itself (up from $20,000 last year), while the rest is provided by 17 film and media institutions sponsoring the platform, each handing out only one award.

Yet cash prizes aren’t the only perks provided by the platform. Every year, organizers invite a large number of industry delegates representing a multitude of local, regional and international film festivals, funding agencies as well as production and distribution companies, with whom participating filmmakers engage in one-on-one meetings, opening the door to more exposure and further opportunities for funding and co-production deals. Moreover, filmmakers are each assigned a mentor to guide them on their project. This year’s mentors were Egyptian director Hala Khalil, Dutch-Algerian filmmaker Karim Traïdia and Serbian film critic Miroljub Vučković.

Masterclass with Daoud Abdel Sayed - Courtesy: Gouna Film Festival

In light of the absence of a solid infrastructure to support the production and distribution of independent films in most Arab countries — with the exception of a few adventurous producers/distributors here and there — independent Arab filmmakers often find themselves almost entirely dependent on funds from regional or international grant-supplying bodies to produce their films.

Past years have seen a succession of changes on the regional film scene, from the cancelation of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and its adjoining film fund, Sanad, shortly after; to the Dubai International Film Festival’s move to a biennial event, which naturally affected the regularity of its own industry platform, Dubai Film Connection; to the political rift between Egypt and Qatar which made applying to grants offered by the Doha Film Institute, previously a go-to for Egyptian filmmakers, a risk many aren’t willing to take. Factor these in, and the options become even fewer.

Within such an uncooperative landscape, CineGouna provides some much-needed opportunities for Egyptian and Arab filmmakers. Yet it simultaneously cements the existing system of funding, production and distribution, the same one that forces Arab filmmakers to chase after opportunities to begin with. After all, the platform is founded on the idea that independent Arab filmmakers need international funders and connections with film festivals around the globe to be able to produce their films and make them visible.

CineGouna’s financial awards

This year’s CineGouna jury was made up of Hania Mroué, founder and director of Beirut’s Metropolis Art Cinema, Marten Rabarts, head of the Netherlands’ EYE International, and Egyptian filmmaker Sherif El Bendary (Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim, 2016), whose second feature film project, Two Rooms and a Parlor (in development), won last year’s CineGouna award. According to Egyptian filmmaker and GFF artistic director Amir Ramses, the jury is selected by the festival’s management, and is the sole decision-maker when it comes to the platform’s award: US$15,000 given to one title in development and another $15,000 to one in post-production. Every other award, meanwhile, is decided on in conjunction with the sponsor presenting it.

This dynamic, while adopted by similar platforms in other international festivals (such as the Venice Film Festival’s Final Cut workshop, for instance, to which GFF itself is a partner and provides a financial award to a participating project), often leads to factors other than quality or feasibility playing a role in the decision — a sponsors’ interest in funding certain projects, for example, or the themes the projects tackles, or even the location of shooting and production.

A number of attendees at the awards ceremony, held in Gouna on September 27, were not pleased with the results, voicing misgivings about the platform’s structural choices. For instance, some questioned the choice of Bendary, a filmmaker who’s currently active on the scene and in the same stage of his career as many of the filmmakers competing in the platform, as a jury member.

Ramses, however, contends that it is these qualities that made Bendary an attractive candidate for the jury. “I think that being someone who is familiar with the scene and who faces the same challenges as the participating filmmakers makes him more capable of evaluating the selected projects,” he argues.

Yet it is hard to imagine that Bendary’s position, as someone with diverse relationships within the Egyptian film industry, including those with some of the filmmakers participating in the platform, did not somehow constitute a conflict of interest, particularly in a place where personal connections and social capital often play a part in shaping the market. Moreover, Bendary is currently working on a feature film of his own, which means that, in the words of a filmmaker friend, “the projects he selects or dismisses are, in fact, potential competition to his own.”

Others believe that it didn’t make sense for the number of awards to be greater than the number of projects competing, as it meant that some filmmakers were bound to take home more awards than others. Ramses, meanwhile, claims that it is normal for this to happen sometimes: “It only speaks to the success of the festival’s first edition that so many sponsors were excited to take part in the platform this year,” he says.

Winners in this year’s CineGouna award ceremony - Courtesy: Gouna Film Festival

The increase in the number of participating projects this year, coupled with the higher number of sponsors, eventually lead to 11 filmmakers walking away with awards, some of whom received more than one, and only five receiving none. CineGouna’s development award went to Lebanese documentary Embodied Chorus, directed by Mohamed Sabbah and Danielle Davi, while the platform’s post-production award went to 1982, another Lebanese narrative production, directed by Oualid Mouaness.

What some found to be more problematic than the number of sponsors, however, is how easy it was to predict — judging by their past productions and the geographical scope of their work — that certain companies would opt for an Egyptian film, which isn’t exactly fair for other Arab participating projects.

For instance, awards by New Century (which produced some of the most notable Egyptian releases over the past decade but have no record of any non-Egyptian Arab productions) and Synergy Films (founded and managed by Tamer Morsi, the current head of Egyptian Media Group, a large stake of which was bought by Eagle Capital, a private equity fund owned by the Egyptian General Intelligence) were indeed given to Egyptian director Ayten Amin’s feature film project Soad (in development).  

Soad was also the recipient of a $10,000 award from Lebanon’s Eagle Films, as well as unlimited shooting location services provided by Dakhli West El Balad (a platform offering interior location rentals in downtown Cairo, founded by Ismailia for Real Estate Investment). Since it is logistically impractical for Dakhli West El Balad to offer their award to a non-Egyptian production — and in light of the fact that two of the participating Egyptian films are in post-production and have already been filmed, while the only other Egyptian film in development (Nadine Salib’s Yam and I) is being shot in Lebanon — in their case, Soad, which takes place in Zagazig, was the only practical choice.

This situation with Dakhli West El Balad raises questions about the efficiency of the entire sponsor system: How can fairness be guaranteed if a project’s geographical location alone can determine whether or not it can win a certain award? And what purpose does an award serve if it can end up going to someone who might not need to use it?

The pitching process

Amin, who has been in a constant quest for funds to finance her second feature for nearly four years now, was ecstatic with her wins. Although the project is being produced by Mark Lotfy (co-founder of independent Alexandrian production studio Fig Leaf), with the household names like Mohamed Hefzy (founder of Film Clinic and the new president of the Cairo International Film Festival [CIFF]) and Tunisian powerhouse Dora Bouchoucha as co-producers, Amin says the US$35,000 she won in the platform are the first actual funds to go into the production of the film. Her story (which she is not yet prepared to publicly divulge), she says, is not very appealing to most of the foreign funders that Egyptian filmmakers typically frequent.

During her pitch in CineGouna, however — particularly in the Q&A portion that followed her presentation — Amin says she was happy to see her project being recognized for its narrative structure rather than the general themes it tackles. It is argued that funders often judge films based on their treatment of issues they deem attractive for western audiences — in some cases, even giving that precedence over artistic merit. According to Amin, it was the discussion after the presentation that she found most useful about the pitching process. “Some questions asked by attendees opened up new ways of seeing certain things about the film in my head,” she says, “and gave me an initial idea of how the film would be received by audiences.”

Amin had participated twice in CIFF’s co-production platform, Cairo Film Connection (CFC), which went into an unexplained hiatus last year. She first took part in 2011, when she won US$10,000 for the production of her debut feature, Villa 69 (2013), and again in 2016, when she secured the involvement of Hefzy in the production of Soad. Comparing the CFC experience to that of CineGouna, she says the former was better organized, but that the industry representatives present at the latter were more diverse and prominent in international film circles. During her two years at CFC, however, she says her pitch was restricted to a 10-minute presentation, after which there was no discussion of any kind, making the process even more nerve-wracking. “Pitching is never easy. I mean, there’s a reason why directors choose to be behind the camera,” she laughs.

Panel discussion on the possibilities of digital content - Courtesy: Gouna Film Festival

Although the pitching process is very stressful for most filmmakers, most industry representatives say a pitch gives them a more comprehensive idea of a project than a written proposal ever could. Some, like script consultant Ayman El Amir, who attended this year’s platform as a representative of TorinoFilmLab, thinks it is very beneficial for the filmmakers themselves as well. “In the process of trying to fit the narrative of a two-hour film into a short presentation, the filmmakers learn to get to the core of their stories, figuring out what they’re really about,” he elaborates.

One of this year’s CineGouna Bridge events was a training session titled “Perfecting Your Pitch,” which — to an unknowing person — would sound like an exercise for marketing or advertising professionals. Amir, however, thinks it’s crucial for platforms like CineGouna to provide similar trainings for participating filmmakers, particularly when some of them are more experienced than others. “Naturally, many filmmakers don’t have the necessary skills required for pitching, but some of them have at least done it many times before, while others are doing it for the first time, and it’s very easy to tell just by watching and listening to them,” he continues.

One drawback expressed by participants, including Amir, is that the pitching sessions were not as closed as they should have been. “The films presented in those sessions are works-in-progress; no one should have access to them except for accredited professionals, but what I noticed was that the door was open to anyone,” he says. This is a fact I can attest to, as I myself attended a few presentations with no questions asked before realizing, during a conversation with Ramses after the festival, that the press was not, in fact, allowed to attend pitches.

It was easy to see how this lax door policy left presenting filmmakers uncomfortable, Amir says. “They were often reserved while talking about their work, which is only normal. No one wants the details of their script to be fodder for casual conversations between people they don’t know when they haven’t even finished working on their film yet,” he continues. Meanwhile, another filmmaker friend mused, “You enter a pitching session and no one gives you a second glance, but if it’s a party you’re trying to get into, a hundred people ask for your badge.”

Structural pitfalls

While almost all of the participants in 2017 were seeking support for a first or second feature at most, this year first-timers competed with established filmmakers like Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi, who has been making feature films since 1994, and Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania, whose fourth and most recent feature, Beauty and the Dogs (2017), made it to last year’s Un Certain Regard selection at Cannes. Ramses says this wasn’t a conscious shift, but that the selection committee’s choices were shaped by the quality of the projects submitted. “We didn’t really have a fixed policy, last year or this year,” he says. “Of course, we are more inclined to support filmmakers who are still in their beginnings, but that doesn’t mean that we would reject a promising project just because it belongs to a well-known director.”

Meanwhile, film producer Kismet El Sayed — who won an award in last year’s platform for the feature documentary Abu Zaabal 1989, directed by Bassam Mortada, and attended this year’s edition as an industry delegate, representing her company Seera Films — believes this large variation in the levels of accomplishment of participating filmmakers was a definite weakness in this year’s edition of the Springboard. “I think selecting projects by such big names in the industry was definitely a wrong move,” she says. “One of the best things about last year was that we were all in the same place — the competition was fair, so even filmmakers who didn’t win were genuinely happy for those who did.”

What further complicated the presence of these projects, which naturally have better production and exposure by virtue of the names behind them, was also their large budgets, as each of them came to CineGouna with half of their budgets already confirmed, while other projects had secured nearly nothing of their desired funds. Ben Hania’s film, The Man Who Sold His Skin (in development) has a whopping budget of almost $2,000,000, while Masharawi’s budget for his new feature, Gaza DC (also in development) is slightly over $1,000,000 — nearly double the average budget of other projects competing.

While $10,000 [the amount awarded to Ben Hania and Masharawi by Beelink Productions and iProductions, respectively] is next to nothing when a film’s budget exceeds the million dollar mark, it would make a remarkable difference to a smaller film. “This platform has a real chance to support the struggling emerging filmmakers who really need it; those who don’t have much chance elsewhere — and the organizers claim this is their objective,” Sayed says. “It would be a shame to see them take a different direction.”

Last year, Sayed and Mortada themselves were awarded US$10,000 by Creative Media Ventures, a win that undoubtedly pushed their film forward, she says. Moreover, through different points of contact they met at the platform, they were encouraged to pursue several other opportunities, including applying to the Beirut Cinema Platform, where Sayed traveled with the project last year, and also one of the film funds offered by Canadian documentary film festival HotDocs. They also met representatives from the International Emerging Film Talent Association (IEFTA), who facilitated Sayed’s trip to Cannes’ Marché du film this year. “Even though I believe GFF could have played a bigger role in promoting all of the winning projects through its networks — rather than just those that went on to compete in big festivals, like Yomeddine (2018) — I can honestly say the platform kickstarted our project,” she says.

Masterclass with French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud

Yet despite the fruitful encounters she and Mortada had last year, Sayed points out that the process of organizing meetings between filmmakers and industry professionals could have been smoother. “I think we should’ve had better access to the industry experts present,” she says. “One way could have been to send us a list of attendees earlier, so we could plan ahead and have time to send requests to meet people.”

Amir had the same experience in his role as an industry delegate this year, adding that communication methods between both parties weren’t very clear. He says he would sometimes want to speak with certain filmmakers but would have a hard time finding them after their pitch. “There was an excel sheet where we were supposed to write down the names of the filmmakers we wanted to meet so the coordinators would set it up, but this fact was only made clear to us near the end,” he says.

As a result, the script consultant often had to resort to catching certain filmmakers by chance during lunch breaks and the like, where informal chats would take place, but he says one-on-one meetings are much more generative and provide a more suitable environment for serious discussion about potential collaboration. “I ran into a filmmaker I knew one day and he said he had been looking for me and hadn’t even been sure whether I was there or not until he saw me,” he illustrates.

As an organizer, Ramses says he is aware there were some organizational hiccups, which he hopes will be avoided in upcoming editions. “The number of attendees, be they filmmakers or industry representatives, was substantially higher this year than the last, so it was challenging to streamline things sometimes,” he says. “But this is only our second year; we’re still learning and growing.”

Amir, meanwhile, thinks it’s crucial for the platform’s coordinators, those who are involved in the day-to-day logistics, to have experience managing events of a similar nature, and to come from a film background. “This isn’t a regular business platform,” he says. “Yes, there definitely is business involved, but most importantly it’s a cinema platform, and those managing it need to be familiar with the intricate process of making films.”

There’s no doubt that the presence of a filmmaker in the platform’s management — someone who’s been in the participating filmmakers’ shoes and knows all about the woes of struggling to make and fund a film — is an enriching factor. In its first edition, CineGouna was managed by documentary filmmaker and independent producer Mostafa Youssef. This year, the festival’s management divided the task, assigning each arm to a separate head. Both Perihan Abu Zeid, who managed this edition of the Springboard, and Siza Zayed, who managed the Bridge, have experience on the distribution and marketing end, rather than creative side, of the industry. Abu Zeid is the co-founder of video-on-demand platform Movie Pigs, and has an MBA in online film distribution. Zayed, meanwhile, previously worked as account director in consultancy and distribution company MAD Solutions and as marketing director in PR firm RAW Entertainment.

Daily activity in the central courtyard at TU Berlin - Courtesy: Gouna Film Festival

Critiquing from within?

Youssef was still part of CineGouna this year, albeit in a different capacity. Together with Fig Leaf, and representing, an online film criticism platform he co-founded in 2016, he partnered with CineGouna to organize the second edition of the Regional Conference for Arab Independent Cinema (RCAIC), which took place as part of this year’s CineGouna Bridge events. This round of the conference focused on Arab documentary cinema, and the different challenges documentary filmmakers in the region often face while making their films.

I think it is safe to say that RCAIC was a (perhaps unconscious) attempt at practicing institutional critique within the parameters embodied by the GFF. Film curator and researcher Nour El Safoury, who participated in the conference as a representative of the Network of Arab Alternative Screens (NAAS), says that the question of funding in light of the current global North-South power dynamic was a recurrent one in discussions that took place within RCAIC.

Participants also discussed the problems posed by currently prevalent film distribution and exhibition patterns, whereby independent films often have to depend on successful festival runs for any chance at a distribution deal; a dilemma that is even more tangible for documentarians. That is when film curator Talal Afifi, co-founder of the Sudan Independent Film Festival, recalled a debate surrounding the screening of a 2010 Sudanese documentary short by Areej Zarroug titled Orange Tint, which follows a day in the life of a group of girls in Khartoum as they share their unconventional views on gender, politics and society. “[Afifi] worried that screening the film outside of Sudan would decontextualize it, leading it to perhaps cement certain stereotypes about the country and its people,” Safoury elaborates.

This example steered the conversation toward the identity politics that are often at play when films from the region are screened to western audiences, problematizing the notion of the “universality” of cinema that current foreign funding and international festival structures are both founded on. This, in turn, brought up the slogan under which GFF has unfolded for two years in a row: “Cinema for Humanity.”

“We tried to deconstruct that phrase and question exactly what it means, asking whether a film’s ‘humanity’ can be an approach to analyzing it,” Safoury says.

Discussions expanded to include alternative ways of funding and exhibiting films. Egyptian documentary filmmaker Kawthar Younis spoke of the fundraising party she organized at Cairo nightclub Zigzag in early 2017, during the successful run of her debut feature, A Present from the Past. The purpose was to use the momentum her first film had created to raise funds for her next production (which she recently finished, but has not been released yet). Youssef, meanwhile, shared the experience of organizing a screening of Out on the Street (Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk, 2015), of which he was the producer, in Helwan — the town of the workers who acted in the film. “We tried to share ideas of how to promote films in a way that would create a grassroots existence for them, beyond depending entirely on distributors, who so far have not been able to create a niche for documentary films among Arab audiences,” Safoury says.

Throughout the conference, she adds, one sentiment was constantly present, expressed in more than one way: independent filmmakers in the region need to find a way to exit this dominating circle of funding, production and distribution — or at least to be aware of its effect on their process.

It seems to me that the room where this year’s RCAIC took place — beyond the “glitz and glamour” of the red carpet, the award-winning films in the festival lineup and even the orchestrated performativity of the pitches — was the only space in GFF where this truth was acknowledged. Yet it is also true that these filmmakers can’t afford to exit the circle just yet, because they need whatever they can get their hands on. This is why they filled out their applications and made their pitches, last year and this year — and this is why they will do the same thing again next year, and continue to do so as long as the status-quo persists. This is why they continue to claim whatever space they can, wriggling into the margins of the margins of the system’s grand events, dreaming of — or plotting for? — the day they can create their own.

Yasmine Zohdi 

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