EL-GOUNA, Egypt: The most ambitious film festival to launch in the MENA region in the last few years is the one in El-Gouna, a Red Sea resort near Hurghada. The latest in a series of international film events that date from the founding of festivals in Marrakech (2001) and Dubai (2004), the GFF’s major benefactor is the Sawiris family, particularly Egyptian telecoms mogul Naguib Sawiris.
GFF’s director is Iraq-born Intishal Al Timimi. A film critic and festival veteran, Timimi was the first director of Rotterdam’s Arab Film Festival (2001-) and worked at several international events before joining the team of the Middle East International Film Festival, before it rebranded as the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (2007-2015).
Timimi sat with The Daily Star to discuss the GFF’s place in the constellation of Arab film festivals, old, new and extinct. As far as he’s concerned, the mission of such festivals must be to promote Arab cinema.
“If we don’t provide a platform for Arab cinema, we’re not a success,” he said. “Look at other international festivals. San Sebastian has lots of Spanish and Latin American films. Sundance is an international festival with American cinema. At Busan you see a lot of Asian films.
“That’s why, I believe, we must encourage production in the region. For me, the region is all the Arab countries as well as Iran and Turkey. Because of where we are in the world, we have to look beyond the center.”
With the GFF preparing to distribute competition awards for feature-length fiction, documentary and shorts, and the project-funding grants disbursed at the CineGouna Platform (the festival’s industry component), Timimi was looking forward to expansion.
“We have only 80-plus films because we have only five venues. When we have more venues, we’ll have more films.
“This year we have five, plus a new venue in Hurghada. Next year I expect six venues in Gouna and two or three in Hurghada.
“I’m dreaming of 100-120 films because with [that number] you can design a festival that, in addition to competition and out-of-competition films, you can design special programs, which I think is one of the central roles of a film festival - to discover old and highlight newfound classics.”
The 2019 competitions screened 15 narrative features, five from the Arab world, and 12 feature-length docs, four of them Arab. Eight of the 24 shorts are from this region.
“We believe that the regional films we support are our discoveries, even if they’ve screened before in Berlin or Cannes or TIFF [the Toronto festival]. Many of these filmmakers were our discoveries - whether at CineGouna or when I was in Sanad [ADFF’s former film fund].
“At the same time, we think this festival is a bridge between Arab and international cinema.
“On one hand, many of the films have benefited from expert international consultations here at the CineGouna platform. Also, for many of these films, their projection at Gouna is their second or third international screening.
“All but one of Gouna’s competition films were released in 2019,” Timimi smiled.
“All were regional premieres, at least. ... Of the 90 films we invited this year, we got 84 of them.”
Several features of the GFF’s profile - solvency, high-quality international film selection, conscientious industry program and film development grants, even its coastal resort location - are reminiscent of the first generation of Gulf film festivals in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. Timimi doesn’t think the comparison is apt, though he admits the GFF’s operating model shares features with those pioneering events.
“In this region there are two kinds of film festivals,” he said. “There are the traditional festivals - Carthage, Cairo, Damascus. ... The new wave of film festivals began with Marrakech, then Dubai, then Abu Dhabi and Doha. Dubai shut the same year that Marrakech took a year off.
“These new festivals are different from the traditional festivals for many reasons. First, they don’t feel the heavy hand of government, though they may have state financing. It’s not that the state doesn’t care but that they’re busy. I don’t think the sheikhs of Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the king of Morocco have a lot of time to follow [such matters]. I don’t know.
“So these events have more freedom. I don’t mean full freedom. I remember in Abu Dhabi there was a film about the Polisario [Sahrawi People’s Liberation Front] that we couldn’t screen because of the UAE’s relationship with Morocco.
“There’s no full freedom anywhere, but I think they did enjoy more freedom.
“The Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Marrakech and Doha festivals were full of experts from different festivals who came in for two or three months to run each event.
“The situation here is different. [In our screenings,] I think we’re following the same model as this new wave of festivals. We have experts from all over the world. There is a good financial situation that allows us to do our job, and the freedom. These aren’t only the Gulf festivals but festivals everywhere.
“Maybe the one thing that makes us like Abu Dhabi is the competition prizes for best Arab feature. That’s our vision. If you want to encourage Arab films to compete in an international platform with big films, with incomparable financial resources, then you must give them another chance. This is how you support regional cinema.”
It’s easy to sympathize with Timimi’s desire to bring some nuance to how the GFF is classified. Though all four of the “new” Arab festivals he names were quality products, only Marrakech still operates (the Doha Film Institute having established different platforms). He’s also confident that the GFF has more of the necessary ingredients for continuity.
He noted that for the first edition of the CineGouna platform, the GFF supplied $20,000 for prizes, while private sector sponsors provided $40,000. For the third edition, the festival put up $30,000 in prize monies, but CineGouna’s budget was $250,000.
“The first edition of GFF was funded 85 percent by the Sawiris family. They financed 60 percent of the second edition. The third edition, I believe, is something like 50-55 percent Sawiris financing.
“The best thing, with the help of the Sawiris family, is to be independent from them, to be an institution. We intend to do that. How much we succeed, we don’t know. There are many challenges, and not only economic. As you know, the last year film production in Egypt faced a lot of challenges. That’s why the number of films to draw on ... was very small.
“The budget of the second edition was less than that of the first and that of the third is about the same, as things become more expensive. We try to keep the budget under control and try to get as much help as possible from outside the family and Orascom.
“Until now we’re trying to keep the [Egyptian] staff budget at around 15 percent of the budget. In Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Marrakech it’s around 55 percent, if not more.”
Timimi finally sips his tea. “In Gouna, you can meet big stars on the street, in the cafes. It’s like Cannes 50 years ago or Sundance 20 years ago. I think this is the recipe for creating an institution.”
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