Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival is back after a one-year hiatus with a rich mix of Arabic and international titles launching into the Middle East and plenty of promising projects from Arab countries set to be unveiled to prospective partners at its CineGouna industry side.
The event launched in 2017 by Egyptian telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris – whose brother Samih built the El Gouna resort in a swathe of desert near the tourist town of Hurghada 250 miles south of Cairo – was put on pause in 2022 ostensibly due to the country’s economic crisis following five editions during which fest co-founder Amr Mansi and chief Intishal Al Timimi had managed to rapidly put El Gouna on the international festival map while also making it a favourite with the local crowd.
“If there is a positive from the fact that we were forced to skip a year it’s that we were sorely missed by Egyptian audiences and also by the Arab and international film communities,” says Al Timimi, who adds: “Now we are back with a better program both in terms of the selection and the festival’s industry side.”
Al Timimi has beefed up his team that now comprises widely respected Egyptian producer-director Marianne Khoury in the artistic director’s chair. Working in tandem, they have assembled a smartly conceived lineup that champions female directors, favours broader geographic diversity – as opposed to a Eurocentric approach when it comes to international titles – and mixes works by name helmers such as Luc Besson’s “Dogman”; Todd Haynes’ “May December”; and Korean auteur Hong Sangsoo’s “In Our Day” with a robust representation of first works. Besson is expected to attend and hold a masterclass.
Khoury laughingly notes that “Most of the established names in the lineup are men,” before pointing out two English-language debut features selected for El Gouna, both by female filmmakers: Texas-set “Family Portrait” by Lucy Kerr, about a young woman returning home for a family gathering beset by a looming disaster, and Charlotte Regan’s “Scrapper,” a portrait of a resourceful 12-year-old orphan living in East London.
Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic (“Quo Vadis, Aida?”) will preside over the jury of the fest’s sixth edition that will run Oct. 13-20. Significantly this year’s main jury will be made up entirely of women.
The Arabic films competing in El Gouna alongside international titles for a total of more than $200,000 in cash prizes comprise debuting Sudanese director Mohamed Kordofani’s timely morality tale “Goodbye Julia” that takes place just before the 2011 secession of South Sudan; Egyptian director Ayten Amin’s comedy “The Shanabs,” about a funeral in Alexandria, which prompts some funny situations; and Moroccan director Leïla Kilani’s “Birdland (Indivision),” set in El Mansouria, near Tangier, which combines family melodrama and social fable elements.
Italian multi-hyphenate Ilaria Borrelli’s Arabic-language feminist drama “The Goat” featuring Mira Sorvino and John Savage alongside a stellar Egyptian cast is world premiering out of competition.
El Gouna’s female-driven documentary competition comprises French-Iraqi Leila Al Bayaty’s “From Abdul to Leila,” which deals with the scars of Saddam Hussein’s regime; Ibrahim Nash’at’s “Hollywoodgate,” an eye-opening first-person description of the Taliban’s takeover of a former U.S. military base in Kabul that provides glimpses of how dramatically life for Afghan women has changed since the return of the Taliban; Tunisian-French filmmaker Sonia Ben Slama’s “Machtat,” an intimate portrait of a mother and two daughters who work as Tunisian wedding musicians, and Lebanese-American filmmaker Jude Chehab’s “Q” about the impact of her mother Hiba’s being a member of a closed-off, all-female religious Syrian sect.
Promising projects in various stages being unveiled at the fest’s CineGouna SpringBoard co-production platform include debuting French-Lebanese director Dahlia Nemlich’s drama “Assa, a Fish in a Bowl,” about a young Ethiopian woman working as the live-in maid of a young Lebanese couple; “Girl of Wind,” which marks the feature film debut of Tunisian filmmaker and visual artist Moufida Fedhila, who is known for several prizewinning shorts including “Offside” and “Aya.” (These projects are both in development).
Films in post comprise black comedy anthology “Spring Came on Laughing” by Egypt’s Noha Adel, and Tunisian director Amel Guellaty’s “Tunis-Djerba,” about two twenty-somethings named Alyssa and Mehdi, who are penniless, suffocated by heavy family situations plus bleak employment prospects, and embark on a liberating road trip.
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