ROME – The first edition of Egypt’s ambitious El Gouna Film Festival wrapped Friday with psychological thriller “Scary Mother,” by Georgian first-time director Ana Urushadze, taking the Golden Star, the fest’s top feature film competition prize. The prize was awarded by a jury headed by U.S. producer Sarah Johnson (“Birdman”).
Oscar-winning actor-director Forest Whitaker was celebrated with a lifetime achievement award during the closing ceremony in the festival’s open-air auditorium, also attended by Oliver Stone. Both men held master classes.
Besides a trophy, “Scary Mother” (pictured), which is about a 50-year-old housewife struggling to choose between her family life and a passion for writing, scored $50,000 in prize money, to be divided equally between the director and the main producer. The film – a co-production between Georgia’s Studio Artzim and Gemini and Estonia’s Allfilm – also recently won the Sarajevo Film Festival’s top prize, and is Georgia’s selection for the foreign-language Oscar.
French-Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult” took the El Gouna Silver Star nod, on the heels of scooping the best actor prize in Venice. Doueiri was also honored during El Gouna with the Variety MENA Talent of the Year Award.
“The Insult,” which tells the story of a slur that ends up pitting a Lebanese Christian auto mechanic against a Palestinian Muslim in a publicly divisive court case, is currently No. 1 at the Lebanese box office, despite a failed attempt to censor the film. Doueiri was even detained briefly at the Beirut airport.
El Gouna’s Bronze Star went to Russian drama “Arrhythmia,” about a hard-drinking paramedic’s domestic woes. “Photocopy,” by Egyptian first-timer Tamer Ashry, took the nod for best Arabic feature.
Acting honors went to Moroccan actress Nadia Kounda, for her role in low-rent love story “Volubilis” and to Mexican actor Daniel Gimenez Cacho, who plays the titular role in Lucrecia Martel’s historical epic “Zama,” about an officer of the Spanish crown.
U.S. titles fared well in the documentary competition. Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” about African-American writer James Baldwin, scored the top nod, worth $30,000. World premiere “Soufra,” a doc executive-produced by Susan Sarandon about a group of women in the Bur El Barajneh refugee camp south of Beirut who set up a catering business, took the section’s Mentor Arabia Award. Directed by Thomas Morgan, “Soufra” (Arabic for “feast”) also won the fest’s audience-chosen Cinema for Humanity award.
Backed by Egyptian telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris and directed by prominent Arab cinema programmer Intishal Al Timini, the inaugural Sept. 21-29 event held in the high-end El Gouna Red Sea resort kicked off with a nationally televised opening ceremony extravaganza during which iconic Egyptian actor Adel Emam was honored and U.S. thesp Michael Madsen took the stage. Dylan McDermott and Emmanuelle Béart were also spotted mingling with the top echelons of the Egyptian film industry, which is the Arab world’s cinematic powerhouse.
Thanks to the organizers’ deep pockets, Al Timimi’s expertise, a pleasant setting, and a competitive calendar slot, El Gouna is well positioned to gain prominence on the volatile Middle East film festival landscape.
But the fest will have to improve its organization, which at times was almost shambolic. Drivers got lost, the inaugural screening was halted because the open-air screen had shadows on it that marred the film’s visibility, and official parties were held without bothering to send out invitations. The press office did not open before 10 a.m., and journalists were left to their own devices.
Still, as one U.S. producer put it: “They got the movies here, and they got plenty of people to come. For a first edition, that’s pretty good.”
France’s Wild Bunch, Memento, and Asia’s Fortissimo, as well as Middle Eastern outfits including distributors Front Row, Eagle Films and broadcasters MBC, Rotana Media Group, and OSN attended the CineGouna co-production platform for Arab narrative and documentary projects in either development or post-production, a new incubator and funding source for Arab cinema. It will be interesting to see if and how El Gouna’s industry side will mesh with other existing support platforms on the Arab fest circuit.
WINNERS OF THE EL GOUNA FILM FESTIVAL AWARDS
FEATURE NARRATIVE COMPETITION
Golden Star: “Scary Mother,” Ana Urushadze
Silver Star: “The Insult,” Ziad Dower
Bronze Star: “Arrhythmia,” Boris Khlebnikov
Golden Star for Best Arabic Feature Film: “Photocopy,” Tamer Ashry
Best Actress: Nadia Kounda, “Volubilis”
Best Actor: Daniel Gimenez Cacho, “Zama”
Golden Star: “I am Not Your Negro,” Raoul Peck
Silver Star: “Brimstone and Glory,” Viktor Jakovleski
Bronze Star: “Mrs Fang,” Wang Bing
Golden Star For Best Arabic Documentary: “I Have a Picture,”
Mentor Arabia Award: “Soufra,” Thomas Morgan
Golden Star: “Nightshade,” Shady El-Hamus
Silver Star: “Merry Go-Round,” Ruslan Bratov
Bronze Star: “Mama Bobo,” Robin Andelfinger, Ibrahima Seydi
Golden Star For Best Arabic Short: “Punchline,” Christophe M. Saber
Film Factory Award: “Baghdad Photographer,” Majd Hameed
Cinema For Humanity Prize (Audience Award): “Soufra”