El Gouna Film Festival controversies: from ‘Feathers’ to fashion on the red carpet

Producer Mohamed Hefzy of the Cannes-winning Egyptian film says he knew it would be divisive

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While organisers of El Gouna Film Festival on Egypt’s Red Sea coast were able to get a fire under control at the start of the event, the social media firestorm is relentless.

Egyptian director Omar Zohairy’s film Feathers, a surrealist dark comedy about a woman’s struggles after her husband is transformed into a chicken, has aptly ruffled feathers, causing a few filmmakers and actors to walk out of the screening on Sunday, while a parliamentarian wants the film producers held accountable for allegedly portraying Egypt in a negative light.

I always knew that 'Feathers' was going to be a difficult film to get everybody to like … especially here in Egypt
Mohamed Hefzy, producer

Outside the cinema, Palestinian actor-director Mohammad Bakri, who was to be honoured with a career achievement award, cancelled his trip to the festival on Tuesday over the deportation from Egypt of Palestinian filmmaker Said Zagha, who lives in the UK.

Meanwhile, the yearly allegation that the focus of the festival is on red carpet fashion rather than the films, persists, with some saying the general public, celebrities and the media are to blame.

Egyptian film ruffles feathers

Feathers is one of 16 feature narrative films competing in the fifth El Gouna Film Festival, which runs until Friday.

It won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival’s Critics’ Week as well as the Fipresci prize at the same festival, but it is the first time it was screened in Egypt.

“I always knew that Feathers was going to be a difficult film to get everybody to like … especially here in Egypt,” producer Mohamed Hefzy told The National.

He said he could see the difference between the reaction at the gala screening and the regular programme screening.

“When you programme a film gala screening, it’s not necessarily the audience that wants to see that film. It’s the audience that wants to go see that red carpet because it’s the prime slot,” Hefzy said.

Through his production and distribution company Film Clinic, Hefzy brought a record four films to the festival this year: Feathers, Captains of Za'atari, Amira and Costa Brava, Lebanon.

Through his production and distribution company, Mohamed Hefzy brought a record four titles to this year’s El Gouna Film Festival, including the controversial 'Feathers'. Nada El Sawy / The National

Egyptian actor Sherif Mounir was among the celebrities who walked out of the Feathers screening. In a phone interview with TV show host Amr Adib, he said he left because it portrayed Egyptians and Egypt in a negative way.

“It was too much. You see this family living in horrible torture,” Mounir said. “Even in the poor areas, it is not the case any more that people live that badly.”

He said he was disappointed that Feathers won the Grand Prix award at Cannes, the first time for an Egyptian film. “Just because we hear the word ‘Cannes’ we have to stay quiet?” he asked.

Mounir still encouraged people to see the film for themselves and make their own judgment.

However, MP Ahmed Mehanna took it one step further, submitting a request to the parliament speaker to hold the producers of Feathers accountable for tarnishing Egypt’s image and showing scenes that he felt contradict reality.

“There’s definitely a sense that this is a very cinematically rich, but tough film that some people may say doesn’t paint a good picture of Egypt,” Hefzy said. “But we’re not doing a documentary about working-class factory labour. It’s not an ultra-realistic depiction of the social situation.”

Because of the nature of the film, Hefzy said it is likely to be released in very few select cinemas, rather than be given a wide release.

“I think it’s very innovative and fresh, compared to most Egyptian films I’ve seen. I’m not saying better or worse, just different. And if you’re interested in cinema, I think it’s definitely worth discovering,” he said.

El Gouna Film Festival organisers said in a statement that the team “selects films based on artistic and cinematic qualities, according to the standards of international film festivals”.

“The selection of the film Feathers by Egyptian director Omar El Zohairy is in line with the film selection process, based on his success in other international forums,” the organisers said, noting that it also won the Grand Prix of the Pingyao Festival in China on Monday.

Mohammad Bakri cancels festival visit

Organisers have not yet commented on Palestinian actor-director Bakri’s decision to not attend the festival after his compatriot was turned away at the airport.

Bakri, whose acting credits include Homeland, Wajib and The Bureau, and directing credits include the 2003 documentary Jenin, Jenin, released a statement on Tuesday. He said he cancelled his visit in protest at the deportation of Zagha.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Interior could not be reached for comment.

“Essentially, this was a reaction, in principle, to the mistreatment of Palestinian artists, regardless of their passport, whether it’s Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli, or whatever. It is high time that Palestinians are granted full rights, like the rest of the world. This doesn’t only apply to Palestinian artists. I’m referring to all Palestinians,” Bakri said.

In 2018, Palestinian actor Ali Suliman was also turned away at the airport on his way to be a member of the jury at El Gouna Film Festival. He is the star of 200 Metres, which scooped three awards at last year’s festival, and Amira in this year’s competition.

Egyptian actor Ahmed El Sakka and Tunisian actress Hend Sabri pose at La Maison Bleue hotel as they participate in the fifth edition of the El Gouna Film Festival. Photo: El Gouna Film Festival, AFP

A film festival or fashion show?

Meanwhile, as in previous years of the festival, social media interest has been largely centred on red carpet fashion.

“I think the blame is shared between the public, the media and the artists,” Tunisian actress Hend Sabri, who lives in Cairo, told BBC Arabic. “We try every year to change this, but it isn’t easy, because this is what the public wants.”

It’s not that the red carpet is the only thing that’s happening. It’s that it’s the only thing people want to see
Reem El Adl, costume designer

Costume designer Reem El Adl, who led a workshop at the festival, told The National that the public pays more attention to social media posts about celebrities and the red carpet over films and special events.

“It’s not that the red carpet is the only thing that’s happening. It’s that it’s the only thing people want to see,” El Adl said.

She pointed to the engagement on her Instagram Stories, which is significantly higher when it’s about “what I’m wearing” versus attending the masterclass from acclaimed American director Darren Aronofsky.

The festival includes masterclasses, workshops and the CineGouna platform, which helps connect Arab filmmakers with creative and financial support.

In contrast, Hefzy, who is also president of the Cairo International Film Festival, said he was able to generate more than $500,000 in support of projects between the two festivals in one year.

“I think people do care about the movies," Hefzy said. "I just think that these are not the people who grab the social media headlines.”

El Gouna Film Festival runs until Friday

Updated: October 21, 2021, 1:18 PM