From Artistic Solidarity to Cinematic Splendor

in 6th El Gouna Film Festival

by Stephen Aspeling

This sixth edition of the El Gouna Film Festival, set to take place in October, was postponed after tragic events in the Gaza region shook the world. After taking time to regroup, the festival was rescheduled for 14-21 December, collaborating with the Palestine Film Institute to showcase powerful films to amplify solidarity and redouble the festival’s ‘Cinema for Humanity’ focus.

Nearly 500 km from Cairo, the idyllic resort setting where the ocean meets the desert makes El Gouna picturesque, iconic even. This is mirrored in its Festival Plaza, an open-air cinema and monumental space dedicated to form and purpose. Beautifully lit and jutting out against the night sky, the cooler December weather made this the perfect venue for the El Gouna Film Festival’s opening and closing ceremonies with black-tie pageantry to match its majestic display.

An understandably somber mood, the promise of cinema and its potential for social impact was felt as things got underway and prize winners marched up to receive their awards. Powered by the resilience of the human spirit, most of the films in this year’s FIPRESCI selection were feature film debuts derived from Asia and the MENA region.

The winner of the FIPRESCI jury prize is Hollywoodgate by Egyptian filmmaker Ebrahim Nash’at, a brave, chilling and unprecedented verite war documentary. As director and cameraman, Nash’at spent a year within a Taliban faction offering a fly-on-the-wall account of their attempts to salvage billions of dollars worth of munitions, supplies and aircraft at a base called Hollywood Gate after the US pulled out of Afghanistan in 2021. Coaxing the humanity out of these hardened fighters, the sobering film suggests that anyone who dismisses their militia’s rapid growth and expansive influence does so at their own peril. 

Hailing from Mongolia, If Only I Could Hibernate’s docudrama lens and seamless flow is a stunning debut for Zoljargal Purevdash. Set in the Ulaanbaatar district, it traces a young family’s attempts to rise above their difficult circumstances under the leadership of a teenager forced into the role of a parental figure. Through steady direction and clear-eyed vision, it’s taken to the next level by young Battsooj Uurtsaikh in an award-winning turn as Ulzii.

In another intimate family portrait, Q centres on a mother’s misguided devotion to a religious sect in Syria. A deeply personal biographical documentary based on writer-director June Chehab’s own experiences of her mother, this hauntingly honest and poetic film explores the alienation, impact and strife of a debilitating domestic situation.

Moving from reality to unreality comes Dreaming & Dying from Singaporean filmmaker, Nelson Yeo. An absurdist drama and a surreal oddity, there’s a wacky sense of the unpredictable that keeps audiences guessing in this experimental film. Centred on three middle-aged people, Yeo weaves a curious tapestry of water and light as beautiful natural vistas make a stark contrast with warped humour and peculiar dialogue.

A Sudanese co-production, Goodbye Julia wields race, religion and class quite dexterously as its storytelling hinges on the see-sawing relationship between a married couple, Mona and Akram, and their live-in maid, Julia. This important coming-of-age drama from Mohamed Kordofani is compelling and thought-provoking, leveraging intimate drama to speak to the socio-political unrest in Khartoum just before the 2011 separation of South Sudan.

From political unrest to environmental awareness, Whispers of Fire and Water serves as Lubdhak Chatterjee’s promising feature film debut. Semi-biographical, this enigmatic tale is enchanting and even epic at times as it traverses the smoke and century-old fire of the largest coal mining region in Eastern India. From iconic scenes to a rich aural atmosphere, this immersive film charts the spiritual journey of an audio installation artist.

When it comes to the authenticity of vision, it’s hard to beat the dedication of Sina Muhammed, a filmmaker whose preparation for Transient Happiness included living with his actors on location in Kurdistan and taking 9 months to grow sunflowers. A sparsely scripted, simple and heartfelt story that builds to a transformative moment of realization, this near-documentary real coming-of-age drama finds an aging married couple who discover newfound intimacy over the course of a motorbike trip.

The elegant and regal El Gouna Film Festival demonstrates why it’s a festival on the move. A reflection of beauty, it carries a passionate authenticity that should hold it in good stead over the coming years, a beacon for artistic resilience. 

Stephen Aspeling