Fun in the Sun

in 5th El Gouna Film Festival

by Helen Barlow

As Arabic-language cinema gains in prominence around the globe, film festivals in northern Africa are flourishing. The Marrakech Film Festival, with its usual starry line-up may have suffered with the advent of COVID, skipping two editions in 2020 and 2021, but festivals in Egypt are flourishing. The Cairo International Festival went ahead last year, attracting the likes of Christopher Hampton, the co-screenwriter of Florian Zeller’s The Father and will go ahead this year from November 6-Dec 5. The second most prominent festival in Egypt is El Gouna, situated in the resort Red Sea enclave which is an ideal location with perfect infrastructure for a festival to take place.

Even if El Gouna was lacking in star power this year, with Darren Aronofsky as the main international guest, the directors of most films were in attendance. The festival boasted a strong line-up of films that had been prominent at major festivals, including Cannes, Venice and Sundance. Inevitably when the awards were announced the best films rose to the top. Though the largely local audience was most enthusiastic when the winners of best Arabic film were announced in the documentary and feature film categories.

These prizes went to Ali El Arabi’s documentary Captains of Za’atari and the feature film Feathers directed by Egypt’s Omar El Zohairy, who after his film’s initial screening had been hugely upset by reports in the local media that his film depicted his homeland in a negative light. When I ran into him at the time I suggested his film was a kind of Kaurismaki for Egypt and he agreed that he had drawn on the work of his favourite filmmakers including the Finnish auteur. When he accepted the award to a standing ovation he crossed his arms over his chest and told the crowd that getting the award in Egypt marked “the best moment” in his life. (The film won the Critics Week prize in Cannes and an earlier Variety award in El Gouna.)

Teemu Nikki’s Finnish film The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See The Titanic took out the Golden Star for best narrative feature film (Petri Poikolainen also won for best actor), Michel Franco’s Sundown took out the silver and the Russian film Captain Volkonogov Escaped, directed by Aleksey Chupov and Natasha Merkulova took home the bronze, as well as the Netpac Award. Maya Vanderbeque won the best actress award for the Belgian film Playground.

In the documentary category, Renato Borrayo Serrano’s Russian film Life of Ivanna won for gold, the Swiss film Ostrov-Lost Island directed Svetlana Rodina and Laurent Stoop won for silver (it also won the Cinema for Humanity audience award) and Hogir Hirori’s Swedish film Sabaya took out the bronze.

Mounia Akl’s debut film Costa Brava, Lebanon starring Nadine Labaki and Saleh Bakri won two prizes, the FIPRESCI critics award and the Green Star award for tackling environmental issues. The Lebanese film had been developed in the CineGouna platform, the festival’s the industry arm which gazumps the actual festival in importance. It offers grants, networking opportunities, industry discussions, and mentorship programs which nurture emerging young talent in developing future projects.

Now in its fifth year the Festival weathered a number of obstacles, including a fire the night before opening night in its postmodern Festival Plaza. Yet at the opening night gala you would never have known. At the closing ceremony Festival patron Samih Sawiris invited the firefighters and others who helped, onto the stage.

Film-loving Samih and his brother Naguib, are business tycoons who took a punt on establishing the festival in the luxury resort established by their father in the late 1980s. The plush yachts and splashy parties are hardly what you might expect in a Muslim country and prove quite a drawcard for the younger audience. Though many aren’t really interested in watching films and constantly check their mobile phones, even taking calls and chatting through the screenings.

In any case with the departure of festival director Amir Ramses the festival is up for an overhaul. Expect major changes in 2022. By then of course we will have seen how the inaugural Saudi Arabian Red Sea Festival fares when it makes its debut from December 6-15 in Jeddah, basically on the other side of the Red Sea.

Helen Barlow