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Star Attraction

All eyes were on Egypt’s Red Sea last month as the red car- pet was rolled out for the El Gouna Film Festival. The star- studded first edition of the festival brought together a host of Egyptian and international celebrities under the slogan“ Cinema for Humanity.’’

American actors Dylan McDermott, Michael Madsen and French actress Emmanuelle Béart attended the event, which opened with an honorary tribute to legendary comedian Adel Imam as he was presented with a Career Achievement Award.

The festival is co-founded by business tycoon brothers Samih and Naguib Sawiris, who are confident the event sends a message to regional and international artists that El Gouna is safe and that the festival will honor cinema and talents around the globe.

“I have always been a movie lover and this is the main reason why I founded this festival. I am honored to have worked with everyone on this experience and I look forward to a very successful first edi- tion, which will help energize us to host the festival annually,” said- Naguib Sawiris. Egyptian movie star and the co-founder of Gouna
Film Festival Bushra Rozza added, “We’ve been working with a vi- 55
sion to live up to the expectations for a film festival that was born to compete with other established international film festivals from day one.’’

The chosen message of peace appealed to the international ce- lebrities attending, including well-known American actor Michael Madsen. “Things going on in the world nowadays, a lot of them not good; the film festival is an opportunity for anybody to get together to celebrate the cinema I love the most,’’ said Madsen, admitting that he had been warned it wasn’t safe to fly to Egypt, but that he felt safe in El Gouna. “Movies are an interesting way to reach immortality and a perfect messenger to promote mutual understanding and hence, El Gouna Film Festival’s slogan; ‘Cinema For Humanity’,’’ Madson added.

“The El Gouna Film Festival pays special attention to provide rel- evant tools and networking opportunities to young filmmaking tal- ents in the MENA region through its unique support platform Cine- Gouna, and we take the workshops and panels very seriously as our main role through this important initiative,” El Gouna Film Festival (GFF) Director Intishal Al Tamimi explained.

Superstar Imam expressed a similar sentiment as he got up to receive the award. “A nation without art is a nation without con- science,’’ he announced, commending the choice of the festival location. Also honored was Lebanese critic Ibrahim Al-Ariss who agreed, “El Gouna is one of the world’s most attractive spots for tourism and a great place to hold a film festival.’’

At the end of the opening ceremony, the festival screened the local premier of Egyptian film Sheikh Jackson, directed by Amr Sal- ama and starring Ahmed el Fishawy, Ahmed Malek, Amina Khalil, Dorra and Yasmine Raees. The movie celebrated its international premier days ago during the Toronto International Film Festival, where it received excellent reviews.

Sun, Sand, Sea . . . and Culture

Serving as a cultural bridge between Egyptian and international filmmakers, the GFF’s workshops brought together participants and mentors to voice regional art and humanitarian stories on the international level, as well as bring about partnerships targeting “cinema for humanity,” which was the motto of the festival.

“Most grants target production and directors, primarily. We do not tackle the step before that, scriptwriting, so that needs more attention in the Arab world, not just Egypt,” Haitham Dabbour, a scriptwriter whose film Photocopy is competing in GFF, told Egypt Today.

Helming one of the scriptwriting workshops were U.S. screen- writers Jeff Stockwell and Richard Tanne where, Dabbour says, con- versations discussing his script in the workshop were dynamic, as Stockwell and Tanne played the roles of authors and producers to pinpoint certain details from all perspectives possible.

“[The participants] are so talented; it’s unbelievable. They have such clear visions of the stories that they’re telling; it’s coming from such an authentic, deep place inside them. I think they’re filled with so much hope and positivity, and I think they’re really, really great representatives of your country and others areas in the Middle East,” said Tanne, an award-winning scriptwriter whose Southside With You premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. As a teen, Tanne nabbed the New Jersey Governor’s Awards for Excellence in Arts Education. His feature film Southside, With You was nominated for several awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award and Audience Award at Gotham Awards, and the Golden Space Needle Award at Seattle International Film Festival, taking home the Audience Award at Maui Film Festival in 2016.

Cannes of the Middle East

Amr Mansy, the CEO of GFF, now expects El Gouna to boom as a global tourist destination and that many more hotels will be built in the Red Sea; all hotels are already fully booked in the first year of the festival, according to Mansy. “El Gouna is a self-sufficient town that also has beaches and beautiful nature that can attract any tourist,” Mansy told Egypt Today.

To Dabbour, El Gouna could easily draw attention for both the GFF and its tourist services, much like Cannes is most known for its film festival. “It is a smart idea to [utilize] a nice place you have to create a new festival, because we needed a strong one … El Gouna is quali- fied to be a celebratory city for cinema,” Dabbour said.

To be like Cannes Film Festival, however, takes many years, Stockwell emphasized, while Tanne maintained the opening of the festival “was a very good start, and in your first year you’re already attracting Forest Whitaker, you’re attracting Dylan McDermott, you’re attracting other international actors and filmmakers.”

“That, actually, may be the key. At the core, it is Egypt, but then making sure that it’s a global enterprise that’s bringing in people from all over the world in addition to showing movies; that becomes a cultural exchange between people like us [as] we get to sit down and have a conversation [while] teaching a workshop,” he continued. Mansy has high hopes for next year, as Euronews is sponsoring the event and several international media outlets are covering it. “Dylan McDermott told us he’s calling his friends who were reluc- tant to come this year, same thing with Michael Madsen and we also have Oliver Stone; all of them will go back home and talk [about the
festival],” he said.

Mansy added he is particularly happy with the workshops and the CineGouna Platform, anticipating requests from international film- makers to shoot in Egypt.

International attention might also help put Egyptian movies back on the map. Stockwell, who produced feature credits such as The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys starring Jodie foster and Disney’s Bridge to Terabithia, admitted that though he has watched Egyptian comedy and recognizes it is appreciated across the Middle East, he said he could not name an Egyptian movie or director. Stockwell also wrote the script for Wilder Days, a drama film which was nomi- nated for a WGA Award for Best Original Long Form TV in 2004. He has also written multiple other scripts, including the films A Wrinkle in Tome, Our Wild Life, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tu- lane. Since 2004, Stockwell has been a mentor at Screenwiriting Lab and has previously conducted two workshops, one in Oman and the other in Los Angeles, California.

“I know The Mummy,” quipped Tanne, “which isn’t even Egyptian; it’s depressing to admit, but it’s actually one of the reasons that it’s so exciting to be here is because one of the participants [in the work- shop] is going to be making a list of Egyptian films for us to watch.”

Expecting that language would be a barrier, Stockwell and Tanne were lucky enough to have a translation booth in their classes al- lowing the participants who speak Arabic and French to instantly grasp their thoughts. “At first, we were nervous about this because we have so much to share but we were worried that the language would make it difficult to talk about the ideas we want to deliver, but it was proven otherwise,” Stockwell cheered. “It’s great because the workshop is a big stew of ideas flying around.”

Stockwell hopes that, ultimately, people will be able to enjoy films from different countries, “because that’s what allows people to con- nect with each other and with the films regardless of the films cul- ture and setting. And it’s an exciting time because it’s easier now to see each other’s films with streaming and you don’t have to wait until it screens in a specific movie theater. It’s really the quest of how we can get people to see each others’ films, and El Gouna could be a lovely platform for promoting that.”
Which is why Tanne finds GFF’s slogan “Cinema for Humanity” so apt. “Every movie contributes in one way or another to humanity. Cinema is powerful on its own. In the 21st century, it’s become the most important provider for images, so if you see yourself repre- sented on screen you know people who look like you, that have the same color of skin, that speak the same language that is bringing people together, because the more I could understand your culture from a film perspective, the more I could understand you.”

A Safe Haven

Security is another major factor in attracting international visi- tors. “El Gouna seems very securely locked down and not at all what the stereotypes of Egypt are in America,” Tanne said. Stockwell agrees. “One big advantage of El Gouna too is the sense that it is such a welcoming, easy place for people internationally to come, be- cause the reality is, people from different countries don’t know what to expect . . . you will not believe how luxurious and comfortable this is,” he says recalling how, after missing the person he was supposed to meet at Hurghada airport, how easy it was to talk to people who told him where to go.

“[El Gouna] is lovely, It’s strange to land in El Gouna, I will say, directly, without having seen any other part of Egypt. It’s almost like I’m in a science fiction story because this could be anywhere, El Gouna. This is very similar to Palm Springs or places in California where there are resorts and developments, so it’s strange. I know we’re in Egypt, I don’t feel it yet.”

Both Tanne and Stockwell have high hopes for GFF and are very excited for what is to come, “For being the first year, the opening [was] like no other. No film festival has an opening has an like that! Automatically, I’m interested in this festival and already wondering what will happen next year and after that.”
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