ROME – Oscar-winning actor-director Forest Whitaker will be feted with a lifetime achievement award by Egypt’s new El Gouna Film Festival, which will open its first edition later this month with the Middle Eastern premiere of Egyptian director Amr Salama’s “Sheikh Jackson.” The closing film will be Chinese artist-filmmaker Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow,” about the global refugee crisis.
Whitaker, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” was praised by the El Gouna’s artistic director, Intishal Al Timimi, for playing roles with “significant social and human dimensions.” Whitaker is expected to attend the Sept. 22-29 festival to receive the award during its closing ceremony. The slogan of the fest’s inaugural edition is “Cinema for Humanity.”
Located in the high-end El Gouna Red Sea resort and backed by Egyptian telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris, the ambitious fest is likely to shake up the volatile Middle East film festival landscape thanks to its deep pockets, expertise, and a competitive calendar slot. Al Timimi is the former Arab cinema programmer of the Abu Dhabi film festival and its SANAD film fund for Arab cinema, both of which were shuttered in 2015.
The Middle East has a history of new film events, such as Abu Dhabi and the Doha/Tribeca fest, that launch with fanfare, then fold within several years.
The El Gouna lineup consists of three competition sections — for narrative features, documentaries, and shorts — plus an out-of-competition strand. This year’s selection is mostly made up of Middle Eastern premieres of some of the year’s top titles on the international festival circuit, from Venice and Toronto in particular, plus a handful of world premieres of mostly Arab titles.
Films competing for cash prizes totaling $210,000 include terrorism-themed “After the War” by Italy’s Annarita Zambrano; workplace thriller “Corporate” by France’s Nicolas Silhol; Syrian refugee drama “The Other Side of Hope” by Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki; and “No Bed of Roses” (aka “Doob”) by Bangladeshi helmer Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, based on a celebrity scandal that shook conservative society in his country.
Four Arab features will compete for awards: Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s courtroom drama “The Insult”; Moroccan director Faouzi Bensaidi’s social drama “Volubilis”; “Photocopy,” by Egyptian first-timer Tamer Ashry; and “Sheikh Jackson,” the opener, which is about a Muslim cleric obsessed with Michael Jackson. “Sheikh Jackson” is this year’s Egyptian foreign Oscar contender.
There is no section reserved only for Arab titles because “we do not want to create a ghetto,” Al Timimi said.
Several documentaries are world-premiering in El Gouna, such as Susan Sarandon-produced refugee camp-themed “Soufra” by U.S. director Thomas Morgan (“Waiting For Mamu”); “I Have a Picture” by Egypt’s Mohamed Zedan, which delves into Egyptian film history; and “17” by Jordan’s Widad Shafakoj, about the groundbreaking Jordanian under-17 women’s world cup soccer team.
On the market side, El Gouna is launching the CineGouna co-production platform for Arab narrative and documentary projects in either development or post-production. Companies expected to make the trek include France’s Wild Bunch, Memento, and Asia’s Fortissimo, as well as Middle Eastern outfits such as distributor Eagle Films and broadcasters MBC, Rotana Media Group, and OSN.
U.S. screenwriters Jeff Stockwell (“The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys”) and Richard Tanne (“Southside With You”) will jointly hold an onstage conversation. The University of Southern California’s American Film Showcase will hold a screenwriting workshop for young Arab writers.
Al Timini said that, compared to other Middle Eastern fests, El Gouna’s market and mentoring components are boosted by the fact that Egypt remains the region’s film industry powerhouse despite the country’s turbulence.
“There are other solid film festivals in the region,” including Dubai, Carthage, and Marrakesh, he said. “We are competing with them, but also complementing them.”