I hadn’t heard of a little town called El Gouna along the Red Sea coast in Egypt, across the waters from Sharm El Sheikh. A town, I discovered, that was born and bred in luxury less than 30 years ago. El Gouna is a new beach resort built to perfection by the Sawiris brothers. Blue lagoons encircle cottages and hotel rooms (nearly all of them single storied), the architecture everywhere is specially designed to resemble from the outside a-once-upon-a-time simple, indigenous style of housing with baked and sandy colours of the surrounding desert. Restaurants and cinemas, hotels and residences make El Gouna the ultimate holiday destination: uniform, clean to a fault, full of coral reefs and golf courses, and offering snorkelling, kite-surfing, water skiing and scuba diving. And then there is a happy downtown, a mosque, a church and a hospital. Aimed at the well-heeled, the town is not a place where you live (no one could tell me the actual population between five and 10 thousand, people suggested). It is w
here you go from all parts of Egypt and abroad to attend a film festival the El Gouna Film Festival.
The festival started last year, and immediately set high standards for itself. For billionaire businessman and festival founder Naguib Sawiris, “art and cinema have an important role incurbing regressive beliefs Nowadays, the world only hears of our region in the context of tragic and devastating news. We aim to show the world the true face of Egypt with its civilisation, creativity…”
Only 75 films this year (including shorts and documentaries), but so much to see and do around them 700 invitees, over a hundred stars, red carpets, lavish opening and closing ceremonies brightened by the flow of wine and champagne, sponsoring of film projects, homages (to Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Youssef Chahine), panel discussions, master classes, exhibitions, lectures, platforms for interaction between Arab and non-Arab filmmakers and much else. Hollywood actor Sylvester Stallone was given the El Gouna Career Achievement Award, and in his brief acceptance speech he said he loved being here and would be back. Festival director Intishal Al Timimi said that the “level of generosity in sponsorship (was) unprecedented in Egypt; and it rarely occurs in the Arab world, or even globally.”
Arab films (and El Gouna is the right place to view films from the Arab world) took at least eight awards. For a visitor like me, this is the principal interest that such a festival holds. Arab films have strong themes that touch on both the daily lives of people and on the larger, despairing context in which many frequently live. From the intimate to the religious, from the making of extremists to the question of plucking eyebrows, from a leper colony in the desert to childbirth on a Damascus street the range and intensity of the films were overwhelming, and some even left the cinema halls shuddering.
At least seven of the 15 awards were won by Arab films, even if these were not necessarily the top ones. By far, the story that warmed everyone’s hearts was Yomeddine, a touching and daring work about Beshay, a man who has been living in a leper colony, but is now cured of his ailment. But the scars on the face and the twisted hands are in full view. Yomeddine means “The Day of Judgement” in Arabic, and everyone will be equal on the Day of Judgement before God. Beshay travels with a young boy, Obama, who will not leave him to his hometown in search of his roots after the death of his wife. It is the story of a social underdog as he encounters the wise and the wicked in his travels. There is no sentimentality, no self-pity, only a sense of adventure and satisfaction. The film won for its director A.B. Shawky Best Arab Narrative Film and the Cinema for Humanity Audience Award, which it shared with Another Day of Life by directors Raul De La Fuente (Spain) and Damian Nenow (Poland).
The Best Arab Short Film Award went to Eyebrows by Egyptian director Tamer Ashrey. Young Ayesha in full hijab meets her friend in a mall and the discussion somehow turns to eyebrows. Trivial? On the contrary. Should a woman pluck her eyebrows to enhance her beauty, asks Ayesha? The question moves from the aesthetic to married life to the religious. With her bushy brows, will Ayesha ever find a husband? And if she does, will the man allow her to shape them? Does plucking violate God’s law? There is no clear-cut answer as the film closes, and although Ayesha seems to have made up her mind, she not acted on it.
Sheikh’s Watermelons by Kaouther Ben Hania, a Tunisian woman filmmaker, won the Bronze Star in the Short Film Competition. This Tunisian-French co-production is about deception in a mosque: Sheikh Taher, the Imam is a good man but clearly, his deputy, Hamid, is not. One day some children bring a coffin into the mosque and say it contains the body of their mother. The Imam prays for her, only to discover later that the coffin’s contents are three large watermelons, not a body! The Imam is shocked and worried. Was the deputy in any way involved in embarrassing him by faking the “remains” in the coffin?
The Silver Star in the Feature Documentary Section and the Best Arab Documentary were awarded to Of Fathers and Sons by Syrian director Talal Derki. In an audacious bid to understand how the mind of a jihadist works, he spent more than two years with just such a family man, pretending to be a radical war photographer and recording the man’s relationship with his several young sons. The man loves them on the one hand, and on the other, trains them for battle in defence of God and Islam. He himself loses a leg in a mine blast, but no matter. The war must carry on. The children’s minds must be moulded.
Lebanese filmmaker Cyril Aris won the Bronze Star in the Feature Documentary Section for his film The Swing. A restrained, very moving tale of an elderly couple the man is rapidly losing his memory. Does one or does one not inform him of the death of their daughter? He longs to see her, he asks about her, but is not told. His wife is torn between her need to keep the death a secret and the need to tell the truth. Little happens but though ordinary conversations, you see their minds moving in different directions.
Yes, Arab cinema is passing through a creative phase. It tackles issues head-on with a sense of purpose and quality. Naturally, wider problems of war and death and destruction are their major concerns. But so too are the diurnal questions that batter us all, but in the case of Arab cinema, they are placed in a context heavy with social searching.
The writer is an eminent film critic and has been on the jury of several national and international festivals...