First El-Gouna Film Festival looks to make history
Cairo - Organisers of the inaugural El-Gouna Film Festival have high hopes that the eight-day event will become a fixture on the Middle Eastern cultural calendar.
The international festival, sponsored by Egyptian business tycoons Sameh and Naguib Sawiris and to take place in the Red Sea resort of El Gouna, aims to promote peace, tolerance and co-existence, organisers said.
“This message is very important now, given what we see everywhere around us,” said Amr Mansi, the festival co-founder and the CEO of the company organising the event. “We are trying to throw light on cinematic works that impart this message and encourage works that prove that cinema as an art form is capable of bringing about the aspired peace and coexistence.”
Perhaps this is the reason the festival’s Programming Committee selected “Sheikh Jackson,” a film written and directed by Amr Salama, to be screened at the festival’s opening ceremony September 22.
“Sheikh Jackson,” which is Egypt’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Academy Awards, tells the strange story of a conservative Islamic cleric having a crisis of faith when he hears that his childhood idol, Michael Jackson, has died.
The film, which stars Egyptian actor Ahmed el-Fishawy, offers a rare mix of religion and art, the Islamic and Western cultures and love and piety.
The festival features films from more than 15 Arab and Western countries. The festival’s closing film, to be shown September 29, will be Chinese film-maker Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow,” which looks at the global refugee crisis.
Those working with Mansi to make the event a success said the El-Gouna Film Festival only accepts films that promote cultural interaction, foster awareness of different cinematic voices by encouraging dialogue and build bridges of creative intellect.
The festival offers regional film-makers the opportunity to meet with international peers. Representatives from major film festivals, including Venice, Rotterdam, Sundance and Toronto, are expected to attend.
“The festival aims to turn into a chance for people from around the world to unite around a number of goals. If achieved, these goals can help the world to become a better place,” said Amir Ramses, an adviser to the festival organisers. “Cinema is a very important media that can effect change.”
The El-Gouna Film Festival could inspire a region where cinematic output has suffered. Several regional film festivals have had their schedules curtailed or have been cancelled altogether in recent years. The Marrakech International Film Festival will not be held this year. The Abu Dhabi Film Festival was scrapped in 2015 and prior to that the Doha Tribeca Film Festival was cancelled. Important features of the annual Cairo International Film Festival have been cut due to a lack of funds.
The sponsors of the El-Gouna Film Festival said they hope their event will turn into an annual must-see event for the cinema industry in the Middle East.
There is also hope in Egypt that the festival will shine an international spotlight on El-Gouna. The Red Sea resort, just north of Hurghada, was founded and developed by Sameh Sawiris and has seen major development in the past 20 years.
The festival’s organising committee invested nearly $5 million to put the event together, including securing an all-star list of actors and directors to head its advisory board. The names include Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker, German actress and film-maker Margarethe von Trotta, Tunisian producer and distributor Tarak Ben Ammar, French- Afghan writer and film-maker Atiq Rahimi, Egyptian actress Yousra and Palestinian actress, writer and director Hiam Abbas.
Whitaker is to be awarded a lifetime achievement award at El-Gouna.
The festival will hand out more than $200,000 in cash prizes to films competing in feature narrative, feature documentary and short categories.
Young directors in the region see the film festival as a rare opportunity to showcase their work. Egyptian film-maker Haitham Dabour, a 31-year-old journalist who wrote the script for “Photocopy,” one of five Egyptian films participating in El- Gouna, said that film festivals like this help Arab film-makers reach a wider audience.
“True, the festival is held for the first time this year but its organisers think big,” Dabour said. “This way of thinking is actually shared by everybody participating in the event.”
Ahmed Megahid is an Egyptian reporter in Cairo.