Over the past three years, El Gouna Film Festival has become a cherished chapter in Egypt's autumn film season. The annual seaside festival is returning this month for the fourth time, amid a backdrop of strict safety measures.
Running from Friday, October 23, to Saturday, October 31, the festival will showcase 63 films across five categories, a slightly smaller selection compared to past years.
Sixteen films are scheduled to compete in the Feature Narrative Competition, including the festival's opening picture The Man Who Sold His Skin, written and directed by Tunisian filmmaker and scriptwriter Kaouther Ben Hania.
It’s an offbeat tale of a deal between a Syrian man, who has fled his war-torn home for Lebanon, and a world-famous contemporary artist. Sami Ali, played by Syrian actor Yahya Mahayni, agrees to let an artist, portrayed by Belgian actor Koen De Bouw, tattoo his back in exchange for a chance to travel to Brussels to reunite with his love.
The Man Who Sold His Skin will make its Mena premiere at El Gouna after scooping two awards at the Venice International Film Festival last month.
Another film in this year's competition is Palestinian director Ameen Nayfeh's debut feature 200 Metres, which also premiered at Venice. The film sheds light on the traumatic but familiar ordeal of crossing borders, following Mustafa – played by Ali Suliman of Paradise Now – as he makes a risky journey to unite with his family who are only 200 metres away. The film won the BNL People's Choice Award at Venice.
Audiences will also be treated to Ismael Farouki's third feature, Mica, the story of a young handyman who is immersed in a gilded lifestyle after he starts work at a tennis club in Casablanca. Farouki's directorial debut, Le Grand Voyage, won the Lion of the Future for a First Film award at Venice Film Festival in 2004.
From Australian writer and director Roderick MacKay comes The Furnace, a drama starring Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek as an Afghan cameleer. The film takes place in Western Australia in the late 19th century and marks Malek's first international role.
Other anticipated films include Their Algeria, an intimate directorial debut from Lina Soualem that takes a deep dive into memories of love and migration. It is competing with nine other films in the Feature Documentary Competition, including Remi Itani's A Long Breath, which premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2019. A Long Breath follows Ibrahim and his family over a six-month period, as he wrestles between the violent street life of Tripoli, Lebanon, and the future he dreams of for his family.
International highlights include Listen (Portugal), Father (Serbia), Bad Tales (Italy), Berlin AlexanderPlatz (Germany) and Ibrahim (France), as well as a newly restored copy of Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, which, in keeping with the festival's tradition of toying with form, will be accompanied by an orchestra led by maestro Ahmed El Saidi.
Eighteen films are set to compete in the Short Film Competition, including I am Afraid to Forget Your Face by Sameh Alaa, which was the only Arab short film in the running for the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival, and The Other Cheek by Sandro Canaan, a collaboration with Egyptian director Kawthar Younis, who rose to fame in 2018 with A Present from the Past: September 20. This is the only category in which Egypt is represented.
The festival's new venue, the Gouna Conference and Culture Centre, will host some of its activities for the first time.
After months of restrictions on large gatherings across Egypt, festival organisers have promised fans a safe experience amid the pandemic. Screening halls are only allowed to be half full, resulting in a larger number of halls available, while the schedule has been designed to allow thorough sanitisation between each event.
At a press conference this month, festival director Intishal Al Timimi said that a large part of CineGouna, the festival's bustling industry platform, will be made available online. "Instead of the opportunity to connect 150 people, this year, there will be 500 people available for discussion via virtual interaction," he said.
While travel restrictions are still in place, the hope is that relatively low infection rates will not deter the film fans from heading to the beach for a showing or two.
El Gouna Film Festival will take place from Friday to October 23 to Saturday, October 31, and the full line-up of films is available here