Still standing: Why El Gouna is vital for Arab filmmakers

DUBAI: Regional filmmakers, producers, actors and cinema enthusiasts gathered in the Egyptian town of El Gouna this week to watch a diverse selection of films from the Arab world and embrace the cultural exchange it offers.Already known for discovering new voices and being a catalyst for the development of cinema in the region, the second edition of the El Gouna Film Festival (GFF), held on the shores of the Red Sea under the auspices of the Ministries of Culture and Tourism, opened on Sept. 20 and continued until the 28th.“Eyebrows,” a short feature film by Tamer Ashry, a 34-year-old-Egyptian filmmaker, was screened in the Official Competition category. It tells the story of a young woman who struggles with the conflict between her personal need to feel beautiful and extreme religious views.“The woman’s basic need is to pluck her eyebrows,” Ashry told Arab News. “She has a human need to feel more accepted and, although it’s not against Islam, there are some extreme views (and some) believe it is forbidden. So this sheds light on extreme religion and her struggle between what she believes in and her needs.”This year the festival was a day longer than the inaugural edition, with more films showing and more than double the number of applications to the event’s industry hub, the CineGouna Platform.“The filmmaking industry in the Arab world has become more and more mature in the past five to seven years,” said Ashry. “When you go to Europe or anywhere else, they look for Arab films because they can see that films coming from here deal with different topics that are more interesting and relevant. The subjects reflect what is happening in the Arab world and that gives the whole movement more of a push and motivation to work more and make more films.”Filmmakers from Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Egypt mingled at the event, which offers them a vital platform in the region after the demise of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and the announcement by the Dubai Film Festival that it is taking a break this year and will be held every two years in the future.“Gouna brings to the Arab world this kind of international look to our films,” said Ashry. “It’s a week of meeting lots of people, making connections, having opportunities to watch other films and gaining experience. It’s really interesting for Arab filmmakers and producers to see the opportunities we can bring to elevate our films to the international level.”The festival program included 15 films in the Feature Narrative Competition, 12 in the Feature Documentary Competition and 23 in the Short Film Competition. In addition, five films screened in a special retrospectives program and 25 out of competition, bringing the total to 80 — 10 more than in the first edition of the festival.CineGouna Platform, the event’s industry arm, which offers delegates from around the world the chance to connect and share expertise, represents an important opportunity to support Arab filmmakers. It also provides regional projects with artistic and financial support to help nurture Arab film.“The festival has already set a benchmark to all festivals in the region, although it’s only in its second edition,” said Yara El-Ashry, a CineGouna Platform assistant. “We’re strengthening our position worldwide as film supporters and, most importantly, humanity supporters.”She said the festival’s theme of “Cinema for Humanity” speaks for itself, as GFF focuses on expressing issues that might not be expressed elsewhere.“It also operates with international standards, even in the finest details, which will help it grow big time in a very short time,” she added. “The CineGouna Platform consists of CineGouna Bridge, which has masterclasses, panels and workshops, in addition to SpringBoard, which is a competition for projects in development and films in post-production.”The festival has received a lot of exposure internationally, helping to introduce Arab cinema to audiences around the world.“When international celebrities and filmmakers are here to see what we have, they’ll go and talk about it abroad,” said El-Ashry. “We need that since the image of Arabs in general is usually not correctly conveyed. We need to push Arab films to show the true sense of art we have everywhere.”Marco Orsini, president of the International Emerging Film Talent Association (IAFTA), which is one of the festival’s sponsors, said the GFF is crucial to creating a nucleus around which filmmakers in the region can meet and discuss the art of making movies.“There has previously been in Abu Dhabi and Dubai some sort of central location where international filmmakers can come in and explore Arab cinema but El Gouna has taken it to the next level,” he said.?IAFTA’s mission, he explained, is to engage in the art of cinema by exploring and finding new and emerging filmmakers to take part in other film festivals around the world.“Last year we participated in the festival and brought a Palestinian and Egyptian filmmaker to the Marche du Film in Cannes (Cannes Film Market),” he said. “This year, we’re hoping to bring another filmmaker to this year’s Cannes Film Festival.”Orsini, who is also a film director, said all film festivals help to advance the industry by providing a forum for engaging in discussions about the art of film.“They’re vital because it’s important for filmmakers to have a space where they can think freely,” he said. “It’s important for film festival directors to come and be able to engage with filmmakers and track them, and film enthusiasts to come and interact with movie stars, directors, writers and people they follow because of the films that they make.”He added that the unique culture of the Arab world is reflected in the films that are made here.“The styles of filmmaking and how people tell stories are different,” he said. “Those stories are important and it’s important to tell them from a different perspective. Films representing a country are ambassadors for the people, the culture, the food, the religion, and this is what makes film so important — it’s a cultural exchange program.”

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