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Egypt Fest Doubles Prizes for Winning Filmmakers

Amid the Arab world’s volatile festival landscape, Egypt’s ambitious El Gouna Film Festival, heading into its second edition, is aiming to raise its profile a few notches. The fest has secured the cream of this year’s global cinematic crop and more than doubled the cash prizes for Arabic projects at its co-production market.

Following the unexpected shuttering last December of the Dubai fest and market after 14 editions, El Gouna is certainly better positioned to play a prominent role as an Arab film industry driver and bridgehead into the Middle East for quality international films.

“The only selection criteria we have is that all films should be fresh Middle East premieres,” says Intishal Al Timimi, artistic director of the Sept. 20-28 event held in the El Gouna Red Sea resort and backed by Egyptian telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris.

While world premieres are understandably scarce, this year El Gouna has managed to lure standouts from Berlin, Sundance, and Cannes, including Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska’s Silver Bear-winner “Mug,” Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki’s “Of Fathers and Sons” and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning “Shoplifters,” plus a slew of fresh titles screening at Venice and Toronto fests, both of which end just a couple of weeks before El Gouna kicks off.

“We got 96% of what we wanted” says Al Timimi, who adds that most titles are coming with talent in tow.

The other Arabic films competing for the fest’s $220,000 in prizes — touted as the world’s biggest festival pot — besides Al Qaeda-themed “Of Fathers and Sons” — include Egyptian director A.B. Shawky’s debut “Yomeddine,” which made a splash in Cannes; “Dear Son,” by Tunisia’s Mohamed Ben Attia, in which a Tunisian middle-class young man leaves home to join ISIS; Soudade Kaadan’s Syrian conflict drama “The Day I Lost My Shadow”; and veteran Algerian auteur’s Merzak Allouache’s “Divine Wind,” which interweaves religious radicalization and romance in a tale about two strangers sent to launch an armed terrorist attack against an oil refinery.

Mira Nair will preside over the jury, a nice get and one that strengthens El Gouna’s ties with both the Indian and Anglo-Saxon film communities.

Al Timimi downplays analogies with the now-defunct Dubai fest, saying that it “was more Arab-centric.” He also notes that Dubai had dedicated Arabic cinema sections, whereas at El Gouna Arabic films compete alongside the rest. There is, however, a specific prize for best Arab film within the competition. He also points out that while the prize pot is big, “we don’t want people to just come for the money, but also for the exposure.”

Al Timini admits that his CineGouna market component was in friendly competition with that fest’s Dubai Film Connection co-production platform. To try and step into the Dubai void he’s managed to raise the pot of CineGouna prizes from last year’s $60,000 to $160,000 for this edition thanks to sponsors. The fest director wisely works to diversify his funding sources rather than have the Sawiris family shoulder all costs.

Al Timimi has also forged a pact with the Cairo Film Festival, now being rebooted by prominent Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy, who has reinstated its Cairo Film Connection. Under this agreement, some CineGouna projects will be able to automatically segue to Cairo’s co-production platform.

The El Gouna topper has reason to boast that “this year we have the highest level of projects in the Arab world.” The 12 features in development include Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” which follows her widely released police rape drama “Beauty and the Dogs.” “Skin” is about a Syrian refugee who makes a Faustian deal with a tattoo artist and becomes her “human work of art” in the hopes of gaining entry into the European Union. Lebanese helmer Oualid Mouaness’ love-in-wartime “1982,” starring actress-turned-director Nadine Labaki, whose “Capernaum” recently won a prize in Cannes, is among the works in post-production.

What remains to be seen is whether some of previous editions’ organizational snags, such as drivers getting lost en route from the airport and journalists being left to their own devices, will be solved. More significantly, the question remains how big the international industry presence at El Gouna will be this year. The fact that the Berlinale’s newly appointed artistic director Carlo Chatrian will be attending is a positive indicator. A delegation from Saudi Arabia, which recently lifted its ban on cinemas, has also been invited.

What’s clear is that the Arab film industry, as it gains global traction, needs an international hub. Time will tell whether El Gouna can fulfill that function.

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