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Cinema by the sea
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 09 - 2018

The 2nd El Gouna Film Festival (GFF, September 20-28) looks more confident and even readier than the first, with a unique programme and extensive red carpet appearances as well as forums and screening halls. Among the international guests are Hollywood stars Sylvester Stallone and Owen Wilson, French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud, Canadian filmmaker Paul Haggis and Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Angelucci, who collaborated with Fellini in various capacities till the latter's death.
According to festival director Intishal Al Timimi – an established film programmer with extensive experience in Arab film and film festivals before he took on the job last year – this year GFF is also supporting Arab festivals and promoting Arab cinema. The success of the first round, he feels, is due to the fact that it took place in Egypt: “This country is the best place for big and contemporary film festivals. Its huge history in the film industry, its huge number of actors and filmmakers, not only Egyptians but also Arabs, its location. These factors cannot be found in any other place in the region.”
But El Gouna as a summer resort gives the festival its special character: “It attracts a select audience not only of filmmakers but also of people visiting the resort from Egypt and from all over the world. One interesting fact is that many holiday-makers booked their places in El Gouna months in advance so that they could be here during the festival, which means it has become a factor of attraction in El Gouna.”
And yet the vision behind the festival remains paramount. “The most important factor is how clear the festival vision is,” Al Timimi explains. GFF is a new festival modelled on similar film events in the world which went a long way in fulfilling the needs and the aspirations of audience, filmmakers and film industry. “We belong to a group of Arab film festivals which, though some of them have folded, are contemporary and follow international standards.”
Compared to other film festivals in the region, the vision of the GFF is that it is an international film festival with a special focus on the Arab films (and an Arab film award in each competition). “We have the most recent award-winning films which all the world festivals are competing to get, as well as those Arab films that are the most important in terms of quality. I believe GFF is becoming one of the most important film festivals in the region”
GFF also has a role in promoting Arab films in the international competitions: “Some of the Arab films on the GFF list participated in international film festivals with GFF support.” This is because enhancing the Arab film industry is one of GFF's main roles, implemented through its industry program. Yomeddine by A. B. Shawky, for example, which was in the official competition selection at Cannes, had a CineGouna grant. It is now in the narrative feature competition of GFF. “We were hesitant to launch the industry programme but what happened was that the programme was there with US$ 60 thousand support, which is remarkable for a start considering that was all the Dubai Film Festival when it closed. And so many sponsors offered to be a part of the event this year so the prize money has jumped up to US$ 150 thousand. But even before announcing this news we had received a huge number of film projects.”
Building on such concrete progress Al Tamimi finds it is reasonable to extend the scope of support. A few weeks ago the festival founder Naguib Sawiris announced an initiative to support Arab film festivals which run outside the Arab world starting with the Arab Film Festival in Paris, and in Washington. “Any film festival should be a part of the film industry and not only a screening platform. This is the contemporary concept of a film festival.”
GFF's team, which still includes a large number of volunteers, is one of its points of strength: “We started with a group of enthusiastic and exciting people, some of them with many years of experience, some not. But this year we all came in line as the festival faces new challenges since a festival that was successful in its first round will not be forgiven any mistake in its second round.”
In this regard Al Timimi believes the leading engine in GFF is the most important factor of success, starting with the business side: co-founders Naguib Sawiris, Amr Mansi, Bushra Rozza and Kamal Zade. This year there is also Amir Ramses as artistic director as well as Nicole Guillemet, Teresa Cavina, Mohamed Atef and Jehane Noujaim as programmers. “The diversity of the festival is the key to its success,” Al Timimi says. “It is there in the programme but it's also in the team in terms of experience, age and nationality.”
The Sawirises, who founded the festival, aim to establish an institution to give it sustainability. “This festival is intended to survive not because of its founders or its director. It is meant to depend on a system which can be worked by anyone. And everyone is invited to take part in the success.” In this sense it is wrong to think of GFF is a “rich festival”: “We need the support of the Egyptian institutions and ministries which should not be limited to facilitating our work but should be extended to financially supporting our activities and being part of them.”
The state should support GFF for its value, not just because the festival requires state support: “I speak as an outsider with experience who can see that even in the richest countries the state plays a role in supporting the film industry which film festivals are a part of. In those countries only a few films find their way to international success, but this does not mean only these films should be supported. Without the many films produced each year those two or three films would not exist. The same goes for film festivals. There should be a flexible, case-by-case policy to achieve a balance between the value of a festival and its needs. GFF needs the financial support of the state like any other film festival. The success of one festival benefits all the others. For example, we were able to invite more film stars this year because the Cairo Film Festival did so last year. We are all working for the same cause.”
For his part Amir Ramses, the artistic director of the 2nd GFF, prioritised quality in the film selection: “Awards are not the only standard of choice. We do not automatically choose a film because of its awards, we have our own quality standards.” Many of the selected films in the narrative feature and documentary film competitions are selected directly by attending the biggest film festivals. But having the most prestigious films of the year is not the only target of the festival. It is also important to introduce new filmmakers and fresh visions.”
Most of the short film competition selections are made from direct submissions. GFF is gaining credibility among filmmakers including aspiring filmmakers who believe it is giving equal opportunities to established and the new filmmakers. Most of t ost of the films in the whole festival haven't been screened in the Middle East.”
According to RamsIs, the fact that there is no Dubai Film Festival this year as per its new policy has burdened GFF. “The flow of Arab films is rising but we have to choose only a small percentage to preserve the vision of the festival.”
In addition to award-winning films, Ramses feels it is important to shed light on important work by filmmakers who are not or net yet established. His selection includes A Land Imagined, the first narrative feature by the Singaporean director Yeo Hua Siew, which won three awards including best film at the Locarno International Film Festival, History of Love by the Slovenian director Sonja Prosenc, which has its own unique cinematic language and provides an original treatment, Of Fathers and Sons by Syrian director Talal Derki, which is a special, unusual and dangerous journey to uncover and expose the extremists' world in Syria, Dream Away by the Egyptian director Marwan Omara and the German director Johanna Domke, which has an unusual combination of different documentary and fiction techniques and Screwdriver by the Palestinian director Bassam Jarbawi, which “has such a human and factual treatment of the Palestinian cause rarely seen in cinema”.
This year GFF pays tribute to three renowned filmmakers: Youssef Chahine, marking 10 years since his death; Ingmar Bergman, marking his 100th anniversary; and Federico Fellini, whose 100th anniversary will take place in 2020.
“In a way there is a close connection between the three of them,” Ramses says. “Chahine who was special in making self-referential films meets Fellini at the same point. Chahine's The Emigrant (1994) has a connection with Fellini's Roma (1972) and 8½ (1963). And both have the theatrical basis in common with Bergman, whose Wild Strawberries (1957) and Persona (1966) make that clear.”
But there is an additional reason for choosing The Emigrant: “Lately the film industry in the Arab world has been under the influence of sponsors and funders who have a negative attitude to the Pharaohs and Egyptian civilisation. Film projects on the subject can hardly get any funds. The Emigrant itself is rarely seen on TV. And it is important to celebrate Chahine with a film and subject that has limited opportunities and also to show that, like Chahine, we appreciate this civilisation.”
GFF's Career Achievement Award goes to Daoud Abdel-Sayed (Egypt) and the Tunisian producer Dora Bouchoucha Fourati (Arab): “In the first round the Egyptian award went to an actor, this year we wanted to choose a filmmaker and Abdel-Sayed is the best choice.”
The choice of Bouochoucha, according to Ramses, has to do with the the struggles she faced as a women in her country and the Arab world before she could establish herself as a producer: “Bouchoucha is a fighter. She was able to make it under very difficult circumstances with all the gender issues of Arab society and in the art scene. It is very inspiring to give this award to Bouchoucha.”

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