On the banks of the Red Sea, in a man-made Egyptian oasis better suited to snorkeling than cinema, a new Middle Eastern festival is hedging its bets on the future of Arab film.

The inaugural El Gouna Film Festival will kick off Sept. 22, bringing with it a polished lineup of both Middle Eastern and global cinema and a slew of roundtables, meet-and-greets and networking opportunities between emerging young filmmakers and industry heavyweights.

At El Gouna’s core, says co-founder Intishal Al Tamini, is a commitment to humanitarian content, and the use of film as a bridge for dialogue and creative intellect.

Those are lofty goals for a freshman festival in a region mired by conflict and marked by decades of censorship, but the odds that lay stacked against the fest, Al Tamini says, have actually helped draw a wellspring of international support and cooperation.

“When you take the Middle East and North Africa, you have 23 Arab countries, which accounts for about 350 million people, but in the end we are filling only a small gap [in cinema],” Al Tamini told Variety. “But film festivals are dying in our region … Abu Dhabi shut down, before that Doha Tribeca closed, this year Morocco is not happening. So when any new festival is happening here, it’s a big event internationally.”

“When any new festival is happening here, it’s a big event internationally.”
Intishal Al Tamini

GFF is the brainchild of Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian billionaire and Global Telecom chair whose brother Samih built the whole of El Gouna out of a swath of desolate desert.

While the rest of Egypt struggles to cement democracy and combat the rise of ISIS, in El Gouna, European holidaymakers are deplaning from international charter flights and heading out to soak up the sun. El Gouna, its creators insist, is insulated from the chaos of the Middle East, and a carefully planned example of what the future of the region could look like.

A film festival focused on nurturing the next generation of moviemakers, then, seems like the ideal investment.

In addition to competitive sections in narrative, documentary and short films, El Gouna will launch with two newbie-specific sections: The CineGouna Springboard and the CineGouna Bridge.

CineGouna, a creative and business hub established with the aim of nurturing and supporting the most promising talents of Egyptian and Arab cinema, will help source both creative and financial support for Arab producers and directors currently working on new films.

The program has both a business side and a dialogue side — emerging filmmakers will meet with reps from festivals including Venice, Rotterdam, Sundance and Toronto, and from networks including Eagle Films and MBC. In addition, 16 promising projects selected from a pre-fest competition of Arab filmmakers will be screened for industry heavyweights under the auspices of the festival in a bid to find international collaboration, co-financing and co-production of the films; and through a series of panel discussions and special programs, Arab filmmakers and their international counterparts will work together to collaborate and share common ground.

El Gouna will open with “Sheikh Jackson,” the Egyptian and Arab-world premiere of local director Amr Salama’s feature exploring the emotions of a sheikh on the day of Michael Jackson’s death.

It will close with Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow,” a sprawling documentary on the global refugee crisis from the Chinese artist and human rights activist.

Forest Whitaker, Lebanese critic, historian and journalist Ibrahim Al Ariss and prolific Egyptian actor Adel Emam will all be on hand to receive honors. And notable international films being screened at El Gouna include Jeff Orlowski’s “Chasing Coral” and Jan Zabeil’s “Three Peaks.”

But the heart of the festival, says actress, producer and GFF COO Bushra Rozza, is encouraging new talent to use film as a channel for humanitarian work.

“I like to think of CineGouna as a magical hub that was created mainly for young filmmakers,” she told Variety. “As a filmmaker myself I’ve lived and witnessed how difficult it is to be heard, and how my colleagues struggle to find financial support for their films. CineGouna offers not only financial support, but also the importance of dialogue between different cinematic voices.”