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A Red Sea Cannes?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 09 - 2017

With its unique architecture and lagoon-dotted landscape, the resort town of El Gouna – founded by businessman Samih Sawiris 25 km north of Hurghada – is a favourite getaway that has seen occasional, small-scale cultural events through the years. But with the first El Gouna Film Festival (GFF, 22-29 September), established by Sawiris's Naguib this year with US $200 thousand in awards, El Gouna is poised to become a regional cinematic hub for the first time.
Both Samih and Naguib Sawiris – together with the GFF company CEO Amr Mansi, company COO Bushra Rozza, director Intishal Al-Timimi and actress Youssra, an Advisory Board member – gave a press conference this week. Al-Timimi announced the year's slogan, “Cinema for Humanity”, explaining, “We aim to bring over a selection of the most recent award-winning films from various international film festivals like Rotterdam, Berlin, Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Venice and Locarno; so far 90 per cent of the programme is confirmed.” The festival includes a Feature Narrative Competition, a Feature Documentary Competition, a Short Films Competition and Out of Competition selection focusing on humanitarian content.
Al-Timimi went on to announce that the opening film is Amr Salama's Sheikh Jackson, while the festival will also screen the premiere of another Egyptian film, Tamer Ashry's Photocopy. The narrative feature competition includes Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri's The Insult – the only Arab film in the Venice Film Festival's official competition this year. The GFF also includes Moroccan filmmaker Faouzi Bensaïdi's Volubilis, which took part in the Venice Days. The closing film will be the exiled Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's German-American production Human Flow – about the global migration crisis.
Also announced at the press conference was the launch of the CineGouna Platform – divided into a Springboard and a Bridge – an innovative business hub to support young Egyptian and Arab talents by arranging meetings with industry leaders including producers and agents, notably from Venice, Rotterdam and Toronto as well as organising workshops, roundtables and panel discussions. The GFF management announced the names of the Egyptian jury members: actress Nelly Karim, president of the Short Film Competition jury; director Osama Fawzi, Narrative Feature Competition jury member; and music composer Tamer Karawan, Documentary Feature Competition member.
Naguib Sawiris spoke of his passion for cinema and his enthusiasm about starting a film festival. “Cannes,” he said, “wasn't famous before the founding of the Cannes Film Festival, but now it is one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the world. I believe that this is because of the festival. My aim is to do the same with El Gouna. These days the Middle East is suffering from terrorism, that's why our slogan this year is ‘Cinema for Humanity', through art and cinema we can send a message of love and peace.” Responding to a question about why the director of the GFF is not Egyptian, Sawiris said, “GFF is an international festival, and the only criterion for its leadership was competence and efficiency.”
For his part Samih Sawiris said, “I believe we will create a memorable festival. We have made sure to provide venues that are up to the standards of an international event. There were screening halls in El Gouna that had been built ten years ago but had unfortunately closed down. I bought the building and Naguib handled its renovation.”
As for Mansi, he expressed the hope that the GFF will be a success like El Gouna's International Squash Open, which he also organised: “We have dedicated businessmen like Engineers Naguib and Samih Sawiris, we also have a committed team. The festival will host almost 700 guests and the management will promote it through our partnership with Variety magazine and the sponsorship of Euronews.” Rozza hoped it would help Egypt to retrieve its leading position in Arab filmmaking, while Youssra said she was honoured to be on the Advisory Board: “I am very pleased that El Gouna is now not ony a tourist destination but also a cultural and artistic attraction; I consider it one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
According to the US Embassy's Cultural Attaché, “One of the most important aims of the festival is to support young talents in the cinema industry, this is why the American Embassy has supported the collaboration between the American Film Showcase and CineGouna Platform to organise a screenwriting workshop for ten aspiring young writers from the Arab world,” with two workshops by American director-screenwriter Richard Tanne and American producer-screenwriter Jeff Stockwell, “which is a great opportunity to enhance cooperation between the two countries.”
Also present at the conference were filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah, another member of the festival's Advisory Board, director Amr Salama, producers Mohamed Hefzy and Mohamed Osama, actors Ahmed Al-Fishawy and Ahmed Malek, director Tamer Ashry and producer Safei Eldin Mahmoud.

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