In just four rounds since its launch in 2016, the El Gouna Film Festival (GFF, October 14-22) has become a staple on the region’s film scene. Whether through a program that includes some of the most prominent recent productions in the Arab world and beyond, by supporting film projects in development or in postproduction, or by hosting high profile personalities, the event left an indelible mark. Its director Intishal Al Timimi and its artistic director Amir Ramses have a lot to say.
Al Timimi emphasizes sustainability, which has proven elusive elsewhere in the Arab arts and culture scene in light of the harsh conditions that the region periodically faces. Thanks to ambition and focus, he says, in five years, GFF has established itself and stood out.
“I am reasonably satisfied with the international position that we have achieved in such a short time, with a large part of the film communities knowing about the El Gouna Film Festival and the city of El Gouna. For the fifth round of GFF, thanks to our growing organizational capacity as well as a now much more experienced team, I look forward to maintaining the same passion and the same zeal with which we embarked on the inaugural round because it is our safety valve, and it can never conflict with efficiency.
When rigid routines and inflexible regulations dominate a project, he says, that project’s connection to the environment suffers.
“Even though we had the least experience at the time, the inaugural round was the best. This created a new challenge, not only for the festival but for the whole community. Subsequently, neither the press nor the film industry could accept a lower standard. Our diligence in maintaining the spirit of innovation and spontaneity is the reason for our success.
According to Al Timimi, the presence of a rigorous system protects him in any event from disarray, and this order is achieved through a series of measures, including easy access to the information, knowledge and data that the work generates for all team members. “It prepares us and allows us to deal with all kinds of situations that arise during planning and execution. “
He also praises the cooperation between the team members, the way everyone feels they are part of the festival, regardless of their job or their age. Over the past four years, the team has included some 180 volunteers aged 16-19. “I would also like to say that before the GFF there had been no significant volunteer culture at Egyptian film festivals, while prestigious international film festivals rely on armies of volunteers.
Its own work can be divided into several complementary tasks, with the program remaining the top priority since the first round. “We insist that every movie be a MENA first, and we are determined to overcome even huge hurdles like Covid to keep that going.”
As for the technical quality, it depends on the equipment; without peak projection, even the best movies look pale. “This is why we have put a lot of effort into the technical aspects of our projection systems. Our technical installations were solid and our arrangements meticulous, so we didn’t have to postpone a single film screening each round.
With the co-production market launched during the first GFF, the presence of filmmakers is a priority. Attendance rose from 18,000 to 22,000 between the first round and the second alone, reflecting the concept of the festival as an opportunity to visit a seaside resort to participate in film activities. “Guests made up half of the audience in the first three rounds, but only a third in the fourth, which means its audience appeal is steadily improving – and this is true for our sponsors and partners as well as for the artists. . “
Al Timimi believes that two factors inspired the confidence of the El Gouna film fraternity even before the official start of the festival.
“The first is the confidence that the name Sawiris has inspired in others as well as the financial support it has promised and provided. But the second is the diversity of backgrounds combined with the unity of purpose of the GFF team. Many points of view are expressed and taken into account; in addition to an uncompromising focus on fresh, innovative and creative cinematic voices from the region and, indeed, from all parts of the world.
Through the distinctive artistic imprint of its program, the GFF has become an important platform for narrative and short feature films as well as documentaries. “Short film distributors now consider the GFF to be one of the main short film festivals, along with Cannes and Venice.
Regarding the emergence of new film festivals in the region, he said this will reflect positively on the Arab world and its reputation. “The biggest positive factor is that healthy competition keeps us all on our toes and makes us much more observant and enthusiastic, pushing us to take a more creative and innovative approach.”
For its upcoming fifth round, the GFF was able to secure the participation of the best and most important Arab productions and attract a significant portion of the films that premiered in Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto or San Sebastián, among others. But the future depends on how the festival approaches its work. “Generally speaking, I imagine that each place has its own limitations and forms of censorship, as well as its own ideas on how to overcome these issues. What we need to do is continue to cooperate because the conflict has never done anyone good since the dawn of time. “
The selections for the fifth CineGouna Platform (CGP) include directors who have films screened in the next edition and previous recipients of platform support. Al Timimi says a film event attracts like-minded artists. “The filmmakers trust the GFF and, likewise, the festival is confident in their abilities and is willing to go the distance for them. “
The value of a project, he adds, does not lie in the names but in its quality. “We don’t revolve around big names or geographic representation, and that’s what makes the CineGouna platform one of the most important platforms at the Arab level. It also serves as a bridge between Arab films and major international festivals.
One of CGP’s notable successes is the film Hanging Gardens by Iraqi director Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji, which won the official jury prize at the Final Cut 2021 at Venice Workshop. “This film was supported by GFF two years ago while it was in development and is being supported again in post-production. The only reason for such continued support is our admiration for this ambitious project.
Regarding the newly introduced programs, this edition will see the launch of the El Gouna Green Star Award, a competition of films on the environment reviewed by a specialized jury. It includes five films.
GFF will also host the second Filmlab: Palestine and Cinephilia Productions’ Sunbird Stories, which focuses on short films centered and directed for children and adolescents in the Arab world. For the next three rounds, Sunbird Stories will be handing out prizes at their workshop finals during the festival.
From this year, the FIPRESCI Prize will reward a first film by an Asian or African filmmaker rather than the best Arab film.
There is also the Khaled Bichara Prize, which was developed this year to focus on short films, and includes 120 Egyptian projects. “I think this competition is one of our most vital additions, as it has brought a community to GFF that may have struggled to reach it.”
For his part, artistic director Amir Ramses, himself a filmmaker, believes that the success of the GFF is its connection with sales agents, distributors and international filmmakers, which has evolved in five rounds. “Compared to the first round, there is now a growing confidence in the El Gouna Film Festival and a willingness to show the most prominent films of the festival, which you can see in our program. “
What Ramses aspires to in the next rounds is greater openness to a variety of cinematic styles and approaches through competitions that can accommodate them. He says that kind of development usually happens after the festival has reached a certain degree of stability. This year, for example, the festival includes a few experimental films. “But I hope there will be a full program of experimental films in the future, among other cinematic styles.”
Another important achievement is that the challenge posed by the El Gouna Film Festival through its previous editions has had a positive impact on the quality of films and programs at other festivals.
This tour has the largest number of Egyptian films, reflecting the cyclical nature of Egyptian production. This year there were too many outstanding films for an international festival to accommodate, and yet, Ramses says, there could still be more Egyptian films.
This round has a specifically French flavor, he adds. “I can say that around 10% of the program is Egyptian, 10% French. But the flavor I mean is as much about quality and names as it is about quantity. There is The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson, which had its world premiere at Cannes, Everything Went Fine by François Ozon, Another World by Stéphane Brize, Happening, le Lion d’or at the Venice Film Festival, by Audrey Diwan, and Drift Outside by Xavier Beauvois.
Ramses struggled to choose from a large number of outstanding Arab films, some of which were painfully turned down. The same applies to film projects, the number of which has increased to 13 despite the logistical pressure that this puts on the program.
In the spotlight this year is Palestinian Mohamed Bakri, an actor who has appeared in international and Arab films as well as an important director. “This is a time when Bakri needs Arab support more than ever, in light of the restrictions imposed on him by the occupation because of his documentary film, Jenin, Jenin. He deserves all the praise and support he can get.
Egyptian film star Ahmed Al-Sakka is also honored who, “like it or not, helped change the Egyptian cinematic landscape, especially in the action genre, by raising professional standards.”
Famous American director Darren Aronofsky, whose collaboration with cinematographer Matthew Libatique has created an influential visual brand, gives a master class. “He has many admirers and students in the Arab region. “
Krzysztof Kieslowski, whom Ramses considers “one of the ten most important directors in the history of world cinema”, is celebrated on the occasion of his 25th death anniversary.
As for his own work, Ramses thinks El Gouna may have slowed it down a bit, but it’s a sacrifice worth making.
“It allowed me to do something else that I also like to do in terms of, for example, the large number of films that I have seen in those five years. The hope is that we will reach a stage of stability that will allow me to work faster as a director. “