The show must go on: what to expect at El Gouna Film Festival after dramatic start

A fire at the event’s main site won’t deter an impressive line-up of Arab and international films when it opens on Thursday, organisers say

Like a scene from a movie, part of El Gouna Film Festival’s main plaza was engulfed in flames one day before its opening.

But organisers of the Red Sea festival in Egypt said the show will go on, opening on Thursday and running until October 22 with an impressive line-up of Arab and international films.

“Anyone who comes [on Thursday] won’t be able to tell that there was a fire,” Samih Sawiris, the founder of El Gouna resort town and chairman of Orascom Development Holding, said.

The fifth El Gouna Film Festival will include 75 international and regional feature narratives, short films and documentaries from 44 countries, with eight world and two international premieres.

“Our line-up includes some of the most important films of 2021, films that have won prizes at the most prestigious international festivals, such as Cannes, Venice and Berlin,” said Amir Ramses, El Gouna Festival’s artistic director.

The festival’s programme consists of three main official competitions in the feature narrative, feature documentary and short film categories, with awards totalling more than $224,000.

Feature-length films with a humanitarian theme are eligible for the Cinema for Humanity Audience Award. And films raising awareness on issues related to the environment will be eligible for the inaugural El Gouna Green Star Award.

Among the 16 films competing in the feature narrative competition are 2021 Cannes Critics’ Week Grand Prix winner Feathers by Omar Zohairy, a story of an authoritative Egyptian father turned into a chicken by a magician.

Also from the region and on the red carpet line-up are: Egyptian director Mohamed Diab’s Amira and Lebanese director Mounia Akl's Costa Brava, Lebanon, starring Nadine Labaki, both of which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last month; Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch's Casablanca Beats, which competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in July; and The Sea Ahead from Lebanese director Ely Dagher, who won the Short Film Palme d’Or in 2015.

The international feature films include Cannes Grand Prix winner Compartment No 6 by Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen. The film is about a young Finnish woman’s connection with a Russian miner on a long train ride from Moscow to the Arctic port of Murmansk.

Ten documentaries will be in competition at the festival. Back Home by Egyptian director Sara Shazli, about reconnecting with her 80-year-old father during Covid-19 restrictions, will have a red carpet screening and its world premiere.

Two alumni of the CineGouna Platform, which helps Arab filmmakers find artistic and financial support, include Egypt’s Captains of Za’atari and Lebanon’s The Blue Inmates.

“There is a lot of care towards Arab films in the region, as well as a strong competition over the inclusion of films in any Arab festival,” said festival director Intishal Al Timimi. “Over the years, we have been successful in securing the finest and most prominent Arab cinematic productions.”

Al Timimi noted that there are a record seven Egyptian films participating this year.

Highlights in the out-of-competition official selection include Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion winner Happening, about a young woman trying to get an illegal abortion in 1960s France, and the Mena premiere of Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch.

The festival will be honouring two Arab film personalities with career achievement awards for leaving their print on world cinema. They are Ahmed El Sakka, one of Egypt’s most successful action stars; and Palestinian actor and director Mohammad Bakri, who has worked on more than 40 films including Beyond The Walls (1984), Haifa (1996) and Jenin, Jenin (2003).

It is the second year that the film festival will take place during the Covid-19 pandemic, with mitigation measures and the support of Egypt’s Ministry of Health.

All workers in El Gouna and at the event have been vaccinated, while the vaccine is available for guests through an agreement with the health ministry.

The first El Gouna Film Festival was held in 2017, as part of a collaboration between festival founder Naguib Sawiris and his brother Samih.

“It was the first time we worked together,” said Naguib, the billionaire executive chairman of Orascom Investment Holding.

He said seeing the festival come to fruition was a dream come true, and with every year it gains more credibility on the international circuit.

Egyptian superstar Youssra, a member of El Gouna Film Festival's International Advisory Board, said the event has not only opened up opportunities in the film industry, but has showcased another side of Egypt.

“There is a big motive for people to come see Egypt in all of its beauty,” she said.

El Gouna Film Festival opens on Thursday and runs until Friday, October 22. The full line-up of films is available here

Updated: October 14th 2021, 6:44 AM