Why El Gouna artistic director Amir Ramses believes film festivals need a little glitz: 'It's what creates charisma'

The Egyptian filmmaker's latest work, 'Curfew', is set to premiere at the Cairo International Film Festival this year

Egyptian writer and director Amir Ramses, best known for directing the two-part documentary Jews of Egypt, has been at the helm of El Gouna Film Festival since its inception in 2017. Midway through this edition, on a day with "the regular amount of crazy", the festival's artistic director sat down with The National. Between his new feature film and El Gouna's laboratory of curation, Ramses opened up about trends in the industry, working with veteran Egyptian actress Elham Shahin and the many hats he wears.

“I have always been a cinephile. Being here in El Gouna is fulfilling in a way. You get to see films, you get to be at the core of the action.”

However, laden with responsibilities, this role has forced the award-winning filmmaker to make unwanted concessions. "I think it will be hard for me to stay for too long. I don't want to be waiting three years to make a film," he says, explaining that even though programming sits at the crux of his love for cinema, the labour involved is all too consuming.

Curfew – which is slated for a premiere at the 42nd Cairo International Film Festival (Ciff) next month – is the director's sixth feature film, but his first since 2015. Starring Shahin, Amina Khalil, Ahmed Magdy, Arfa Abdel Rassoul and Palestinian actor Kamel Al Basha, the film takes family secrets as its point of departure.

“I was tempted to do a story about how far you are willing to go to hide things within your own family, and about family sacrifices,” he says

For Ramses, who is known to oscillate between working on features and documentaries, fictive storytelling is more pleasurable. “As a director, I love to work with actors. Sixty per cent of my job is giving those words written on paper their flesh and blood.”

To explore the notion of family secrets, Ramses decided to trap two members of the same family, with untold secrets between them, in a confined space. Although Curfew is set in 2013, a politically charged year in Egypt, politics does not play out in the narrative in any direct way.

“It’s the MacGuffin, the excuse to tell the story,” says Ramses, referencing a plot device adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, who was once quoted as saying: “[The MacGuffin] is the thing that the characters on the screen worry about, but the audience don’t care.”

By summer 2018, Ramses had written his first draft. He passed the script to Shahin who came on board instantly.

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<span>You can't think of a film as a six-month-old product. If you're watching a good film, it's going to be here for 20, 30, 40 years</span>

“I admire her sense of adventure. She doesn’t care about wearing different dresses or who her make-up artist will be. She’s all about the movies. She’s a hardcore content-­motivated actress, if I may use this term,” he says of the veteran actress and producer.

Because there comes a time every year when Ramses has to switch gears, taking up responsibilities as artistic director, production was delayed more than once, until filming eventually took place this January.

One of the storylines in Curfew follows a man who turns his rooftop into a party hub. When Covid-19 forced Egyptians into a lockdown in mid-March, the story of a man who hosted parties at his apartment circulated online, so "we released the trailer with that character in just three, four days, just to say it was reality that copied the imagination not vice versa", he says.

Before Ciff asked for the film, a couple of international festivals – that Ramses declined to name – showed interest in hosting Curfew's premiere. But as cancellations started to roll in, Ciff contacted Ramses. "We did not hesitate for a second. We apologised and decided to wait for Cairo," says Ramses, whose first feature The Edge of the World also debuted at Ciff in 2006.

It is not news to anyone that Ciff, due to a host of reasons, has been struggling for some time. However, the film festival is keen on revamping its offering since the 2014 edition.

"The festival is becoming more and more about cinema. It's less now about the bling and the politics," Ramses acknowledges, lauding producer Mohamed Hefzy, Ciff's current president, for taking the festival to "the next level".

In many ways, El Gouna is criticised for exactly that. While the festival is lauded for its imaginative film selection and indispensable industry platform, year-on-year, it is also blasted for its excessive splash.

RGB tiff image by MetisIP

When asked about this, Ramses says: “Well, I think parallel events can be a bit distracting, but that is what a festival is anyway. Yes, it’s mainly about the screenings and panels, but if you see Cannes or Venice, there are always things surrounding them, and that’s what creates the charisma or the charm of a festival.”

Over the past four years, El Gouna has developed good relations with sales agents and distributors from around the world, which ensures that films that do not make it to big film festivals are still considered.

Although Ramses does not see himself steering El Gouna's selection all the way to its tenth edition, he acknowledges that global changes to the movie production model will necessitate a conversation about opening up El Gouna's selection to films on video-­on-demand platforms.

“[They] are a good gateway to some films that are hard to produce within mainstream cinema, but we haven’t really discussed it,” he says, hinting that among the wider circle of decision makers, some may cling to a more traditional approach.

"If [Martin Scorsese] has a new film on a platform, I don't think we should refuse him. I mean, it's Scorsese, but this should make you think. Should we really be abstaining from having films that are not going to movie theatres? I don't think so."

Nobody knows what the future holds for cinema. Undoubtedly, technological advances have changed how we consume film, but it can be argued that it also radically changed what we consume.

"Mediums are changing, screening facilities are changing. And who knows, maybe films made for platforms will be on screens in four, five years for one reason or the other," Ramses says.

“You can’t think of a film as a six-month-old product. If you’re watching a good film, it’s going to be here for 20, 30, 40 years. You cannot only judge it by its first release.”