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Celebrating adventurers
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 09 - 2017

At the end of the 1970s he left his home country Iraq for Lebanon, then he travelled to Moscow to study photography; he returned to live between Syria and Lebanon, working as an art director and book cover designer even though he still loved photography more than anything. He photographed numerous writers, poets, artists and musicians; and his collection includes rare images of famous Arab figures – some of them deceased – in their youth. He gave exhibitions in Arab cities and beyond, notably in the Netherlands where he has lived for many years, before becoming involved with film festivals as programmer-curator, director or jury member. And although he insists, “I am a photographer, I can see myself as a photographer the moment I finish my everyday duties and can take a big break; it is the only creative thing I can do in my life since I am no good at singing”, film festivals are what Intishal Al-Timimi is best known for.
Born in 1954, he wasn't propelled into the cinematic limelight until 2001 – as co-founder of the Arab Film Festival of Rotterdam, then as director of Arab programming at the Abu Dhabi Festival, among many other positions. At Gouna, Al-Timimi is starting an event from scratch; he is the first non-Egyptian to direct an Egyptian festival; he seems confident and happy but refuses to assess his performance “until the last day of the festival” itself. “My first concern was the infrastructure. Proper movie theatres are fundamental, whether in terms of equipment or capacity. We have prepared five movie theatres which is a good start if we are screening twice a day. Now we have a town that is ready for a film festival.” Al-Timimi feels there should be a film festival in every pretty town in the Arab world both for the sake of cinema and to promote places – “a film festival shows that people are eager to interact with the world” – but in itself, of course, the beauty of Gouna is not enough. Although he has the help of “a very cooperative team”, Al-Timimi's central task and responsibility, he feels, is the programming.
Most of the official competition films are making their world or Middle East premiere at Gouna, some having already premiered at various world festivals. Of the two Egyptian films in the long narrative competition, Sheikh Jackson and Photocopy, Sheikh Jackson will have made its world premiere in Toronto only five days before its screening at Gouna; it will also have been screened at Venice and Locarno. But even in such films – in line with the spirit of Gouna, which is only 20 years old, Al-Timimi says – the festival emphasises youth and young filmmakers who “will come back to their festival, which will grow with them and they with it”. There is an extra award for the best Arab film in any official competition (documentary and short as well as narrative), which Al-Timimi says “means a new production”; a festival in the Arab world should support Arab filmmaking, which didn't find its voice again until initiatives like AFAC, the Sanad film fund and the Egyptian National Centre of Cinema fund emerged on the scene; many of those including the latter have been discontinued. The state should support the film industry through coproduction – the European (and Canadian) model – as is the case in Jordan and North Africa.
Al-Timimi believes now is the time for young Arab filmmakers to make their mark, since recent political transformations have generated remarkable interest in the region and previously unpopular forms like the documentary are being screened in commercial theatres again. “We can also see this shift in audience taste at the Cairo International Film Festival and the Arab Days film festivals, and we will see it at El Gouna Film Festival as well. What it means is a chance for new talent to go forward, if not through the organised efforts of the state then through festivals and the initiatives of individual producers like Assia Dagher (1906-1986) – the adventurers on whose shoulders film production in Egypt started.”
Talking of adventurers, Al-Timimi remembers the first edition of the Arab Film Festival of Rotterdam in 2001, whose preparations started only few months before its launch but has become a progressively more central event: “We were a few adventurers who had the initiative year after year to promote Arab cinema abroad. I'm not saying we created a huge interest among Western audiences, but among world festivals from the Netherlands to the USA to Delhi, we did.” Many Egyptian and Arab filmmakers, critics and producers took part in the success of that festival as jury members, “they selected the best of the best of Arab film production and that added to the reputation of the festival, which encouraged other festivals to have Arab film programmes with our help as the organisers of Rotterdam. And, because of the Rotterdam Arab Film Festival I am here now for another adventure” that will build on such film events as the Cairo, Carthage and Dubai film festivals. “Each has its point of strength,” Al-Timimi says, “and in my opinion they should not only collaborate with but also complete each other. They are the way to the future of Arab cinema.”

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