The 5th edition of el-Gouna Film Festival (GFF) closed on 22 October 2021 following eight nights of top-class cinematography and star studded glamour. The festival lived up to its reputation of never failing to dazzle, which this year amounted to a remarkable feat given that 36 hours before opening night a huge fire erupted around the open-air auditorium which was to host the opening ceremony, leaving its walls scorched black and damaged.
Red Sea local authorities Civil Defence were quick to respond; the fire was extinguished without any casualties. Conjecture abounded, however, on what was to become of the festival, with many expecting it to be called off or at best postponed. It was beyond the wildest imagination that the following day the building would stand proudly, sparkling white and clean, ready for opening night. Yet this is exactly what happened; an army of Orascom workers worked through the night to repair the damage. Orascom is the construction company owned by Nassef Sawiris, one of the three Sawiris business tycoons; Samih Sawiris built El-Gouna resort and, together with Naguib Sawiris, established GFF.
Awards … and Green star
El-Gouna is a stunningly beautiful resort founded by business tycoon Samih Sawiris some 30 years ago on a serene spot on the west coast of the Red Sea north of Hurghada. Owned by Mr Sawiris and developed by his Orascom Hotels and Development, it has grown into a lagoon/sea resort in a class all of its own, sought by tourists around the world.
El-Gouna Film Festival was established in 2017 as an annual festival, and has been held uninterrupted ever since, even when other international film festivals had to suspend their activities in 2020 on account of the coronavirus pandemic.
Come 8pm Thursday 14 October, GFF Red Carpet rolled for the festival guests to grace the newly repaired auditorium.
The fifth GFF took off in style, with Egyptian and non-Egyptian stars in exquisite—sometimes eccentric—attires walking the red carpet. Opening ceremony featured jubilant audiences, actors, actresses and filmmakers from around the world.
Over eight days, the festival featured 80 selected films, many of which had already been acclaimed by prestigious international film festivals in Cannes, Venice and Berlin. Guests engaged in activities and workshops run by the festival.
The films competed in three official competitions: Feature Narrative Competition, Feature Documentary Competition and Short Film Competition. GFF also offered the Cinema for Humanity Audience Award, and this year, the festival introduced the Environmental Sustainability Award or the Green Star (as in starfish which is abundant on the Red Sea shore in Gouna and is the emblem of GFF), for films which raise awareness on issues related to the environment. El-Gouna prides itself for being Egypt’s most environmentally-friendly holiday destination; it was the first destination in Africa and the Arab Region to receive the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Green Award in 2014.
During the opening night and through the duration of the festival, the Ministry of Health was on high alert and had its medical teams and vehicles scattered around town, ready to deal with any COVID-19 complaint.
Omar El-Hamamsy, CEO of Orascom Development Holding, said during a press conference on the morning of opening ceremony, that there was an agreement with the Ministry of Health to vaccinate all GFF guests and attendees. He also said that most screenings and activities would be held in the open air, to reduce risk of infection. Mr Hamamsy said that all workers in Gouna and at GFF had been vaccinated.
Sakka dedicates award to Sawiris Sr
Egyptian superstar Ahmed al-Sakka was handed the festival’s Career Achievement Award. Famous for his roles in action films, Sakka was honoured for his two-decade long outstanding cinematic achievement. Sakka’s friend, Egyptian Tunisian superstar Hend Sabry handed him the award, giving him a moving tribute.
A visibly moved Sakka improvised a warm, heartfelt speech which he began with thanking the festival administration. He told of being one of a group of friends who grew up during the 1990s cinema boom, loving cinema and dreamt to be part of it. He said he was lucky to achieve his dream, and to work with the stars of the time.
Sakka dedicated his award to the late superstar man-and-wife comedians Samir Ghanem and Dalal Abdel-Aziz who both passed away last summer of COVID-19. Sakka also dedicated his award to his wife and children, and to both his parents, relating an especially poignant tale about his father who summoned him before his death, and asked why his fans called him a “star”. Sakka said that he thought his father was not in focus, but was surprised to hear him say: “be like a star in everything except its remoteness; be kind and close to people, only then will you be a true star.” Sakka also dedicated his award to “a man from Upper Egypt who raised three sons to be dependable and outstanding men. I talk of the late Onsi Sawiris,” he said. Mr Sawiris (1930 – 2021) is the father of Naguib, Samih and Nassef Sawiris.
Sadly, however, Sakka’s words were harshly criticised for what some alleged was a disregard of the worth of the older generation of veteran filmmakers on whose achievement the 1990s generation built. Sakka explained that he never underrated the previous generations who, he said, “made marvellous works using relatively primitive techniques.”
Other than the controversy over Ahmed al-Sakka’s speech, this round of GFF saw several other skirmishes which led some to wonder whether internal rifts were fomenting. A few days before the start of the festival, Intishal al-Tamimi, Director of GFF made a faux pas with the iconic star Youssra.
In a press interview, Tamimi said the festival cannot honour Youssra since she is a member of the festival’s advisory board. This declaration outraged Youssra who responded by a statement in which she expressed her rejection of Tamimi’s declarations, pointing out that it is normal for a festival to announce the names of those it intends to honour, but it is unheard of to cite the names of those who will not be honoured.
During the press conference that preceded the opening of the festival, Tamimi profusely apologised for his remark, stressing that he never meant to offend Youssra. The iconic star began her career in cinema in the late 1970s, is widely popular in Egyptian and Middle Eastern cinema, and has been a staunch supporter and consultant of GFF since its inception.
To everyone’s astonishment, GFF Artistic Director Amir Ramses announced his resignation on his Facebook account, hours before the fifth round of the festival was set to close. Ramses who held his position since GFF was launched in 2017, and was pivotal in the film selection in each of the festival’s five editions, did not disclose the reasons behind his resignation. He only said that after five years of working on the festival, he was ready to embark on a new journey, confident that he leaves behind a team capable of doing a great job.
Some confirm that Ramses’s resignation comes because of a conflict between him and Tamimi, others insist it is related to the controversy that arose around the film Rish [pronounced ‘Reesh’] (Feathers). Yet neither Mr Ramses nor the festival’s administration issued any explanation, and Mr Ramses insisted the reasons for his resignation were privy to him and to GFF administration.
Another incident that created heated controversy within the festival and on social media, occurred when a few Egyptian filmmakers and actors, including Sherif Mounir, Ashraf Abdel-Baqi and Ahmed Rizq, left the hall during the screening of the film Rish (Feathers).
They said the film was offensive to Egypt by depicting extreme poverty; something they could not tolerate. Incidentally, the Egyptian-French-Dutch-Greek production won the Best Arab Film in the Feature Narrative Competition.
In 112 minutes, Rish, directed by Egyptian director Omar al-Zohairy, tells the story of a magician’s trick that turns an authoritative Egyptian father, into a chicken at his 6-year-old’s birthday party. The mysterious transformation sets the family off to a tragically funny adventure of self-discovery to survive without the patriarch. When the father comes back as an invalid, he is more of a burden and his long-awaited return is nothing but disappointment.
Demiana Nassar Hanna, a housewife from an Upper Egyptian village, plays the lead role in Rish which also stars Samy Bassiouny and Fady Mina. The film which is Zohairy’s first feature narrative, has already been awarded the grand prize of the 2021 Cannes Critics’ Week, and the best film in the Roberto Rossellini Awards at this year’s Pingyao International Film Festival.
The Finnish film The Blind Man who did not want to See Titanic, directed by Teemu Nikki won the Golden Star Award in the Feature Narrative Competition; it tells the story of the blind Jaakko tied to his wheelchair, who loves Sirpa. Living far apart, they never met in person, but meet every day over the phone. When Sirpa is overwhelmed by shocking news, Jaakko decides to go to her immediately despite never having left his home because of his condition. The film received the Audience Award at the 2021 Venice Film Festival.
The Life of Ivanna, directed by Renato Borrayo Serrano won the Feature Documentary Competition; the film is a joint production of Russia, Norway, Estonia and Finland. It is a drama about liberation and a melancholy requiem about a bygone way of life.
Captains of Za’atari, an Egyptian-US production, directed by Ali al-Arabi, won Best Arab Film in the Feature Documentary Competition. The events of the film take place in Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, where two best friends dream of becoming professional football players.
The 19-minute Russian film Katia, directed by Andrey Natotsinsky, won the Short Films Competition, and the 17-minute Egyptian British production, Cai-Ber, directed by Ahmed Abdelsalam won the Best Arab Film in the same competition.
Petri Poikolainen won Best Actor for his role in The Blind Man who did not want to See Titanic; Best Actress award went to Maya Vanderbeque in the Belgian film Playground.
The Cinema for Humanity Audience Award which is dedicated to recognising films that exemplify humanitarian themes was dedicated this year to the late Onsi Sawiris. It was presented by his elder son and main founder of GFF Naguib Sawiris, and went to the Swiss production Ostrov – Lost Island, directed by Svetlana Rodina and Laurent Stoop. Mr Sawiris Sr who passed away last June, was a staunch supporter of the festival and was always keen to attend opening night.
The Gouna Green Star for films related with the environment went to the Lebanese Costa Brava, directed by Mounia Akl. Costa Brava had already won the NETPAC Prize at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
This year’s festival commemorated the Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941 – 1996) on 25th anniversary of his passing by dedicating its Special Presentations section to some of his most celebrated films. GFF launched a retrospective exhibition of Kieślowski’s works, bringing the audience closer to his cinematic lens. The exhibition screened a documentary about Kieślowski, in addition to three small video installations for his well known trilogy: Three Colors: Blue, White and Red.
On the stage on closing night, Samih Sawiris stood up to thank everyone who made the festival a success, making a special point of his appreciation of the effort of el-Gouna workers.
Undeniably, GFF’s fifth edition presented a rich repast to cinema lovers and those working within the industry, bringing them a selection of the best 2021 movies from all over the world in a charming setting.
Yet the charm and achievement was blemished by unfortunate incidents and skirmishes that started with a fire and ended with the resignation of one of its pillars. For the future, it is to be hoped that the charm will remain and the misfortune be gone.
27 October 2021