Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival Puts Arab Helmers at Center Stage

Nick Vivarelli

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The upbeat state of Arab cinema will be on the screen and in the balmy air at Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival (Sept. 19-27), which is steadily gaining traction in its stated ambition to become a key platform and solid driver for Middle-East producers.

“This year was one the best for Arab cinema,” says Intishal Al Timimi, artistic director of the event held in a Red Sea resort. As evidence, he points out that each one of the five Arab films he selected for his 15-title main competition lineup is by a first-time director, and three are by women.

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“It shows that young Arab filmmakers are thriving,” Al Timimi says.

Now at its third edition, El Gouna has, since its inception, aimed to combine a cream-of-the-crop lineup offering the finest and freshest global and Arabic offerings alongside its CineGouna market component, which nurtures projects, in either development or post, from Middle-East filmmakers.

Unlike older fests in the region, such as Cairo and Carthage, which added industry components as an afterthought long after their launches, El Gouna started out with CineGouna. And this co-prod platform and business hub, which this year will dish out more than $200,000 in prizes, has been steadily improving its matchmaking curation and yielding concrete results.

Of the 10 titles selected last year by its CineGouna Springboard for films in post, several went on to premiere in top international festivals. Case in point is Lebanese love-in-wartime romancer “1982,” the debut of director Oualid Mouaness. The drama stars actress-director Nadine Labaki (“Capernaum”) as an anguished school teacher during the 1982 siege of Beirut. The film made its debut at the Toronto fest.

Shortly after Toronto, “1982” will use its El Gouna competition slot to reach Arab audiences, as will Sudan’s Amjad Abu Alala’s “You Will Die at Twenty.” The dreamy debut drama about standing up to superstition and authoritarianism just won the Venice fest’s Lion of the Future prize.

Another standout Arabic debut in the competition is Algerian auteur Mounia Meddour’s “Papicha,” about three young women putting up resistance against Islamic fundamentalism with their passion for fashion during the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s.

“Papicha” is Algeria’s Oscar contender in the international film race this year.

Rather than being relegated to a separate Arabic films section, these titles will compete for the El Gouna Golden Star, worth $50,000, and other prizes with titles cherry-picked from recent A-list festivals such as Polish director Jan Komasa’s religious drama “Corpus Christi,” which premiered in Venice, and French director Stéphane Demoustier’s “The Girl with a Bracelet,” which debuted at Locarno.

In terms of star power, besides a bevy of local A-listers, such talent as Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud, who starred in Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of “Aladdin,” is slated to return after attending last year, while Egyptian star Mohamed Henedi and Palestinian filmmaker Mai Masri will receive GFF Career Achievement Awards.

Recent standouts from the festival circuit such as Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Parasite” from Bong Joon-ho, Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” and Marco Bellocchio’s “The Traitor” will screen out of competition, alongside “The Knight and the Princess” Egypt’s first animation production, which took 20 years to complete.

Set for an October release in Egypt, “Knight” is written and directed by Bashir El-Deek, with artwork by the late Egyptian cartoonist Mustafa Hussein. The toon was inspired by a real-life seventh-century Arab warrior who embarked on a mission against an oppressive ruler.

The El Gouna fest is the brainchild of Egyptian telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris, whose brother Samih built the El Gouna resort in a swath of desert near Hurghada, a tourist town 250 miles south of Cairo. In an effort to broaden its audience base, starting this year part of the lineup will screen in a Hurghada movie theater during the event. Plans are also underway for construction of an indoor, and outdoor, Cannes Palais des Festivals-like facility in El Gouna, with a target opening date of 2020.

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