Jasmila Žbanic’s “Quo Vadis, Aida?” won the El Gouna Star for best narrative film at the El Gouna Film Festival, carrying a $50,000 prize. The film’s star, Jasna Duricic, also took home the best actress award, for her startling eponymous turn. Based on a true story, the 1995-set drama tells the story of a UN translator attempting to save the lives of her husband and son after the Army of Republic Srpska takes over the city of Srebrenica.

Other winners announced by jury president Peter Webber at the striking new open-air Festival Plaza included Ali Suliman as best actor for his turn as a Palestinian trying to reunite with his family in Ameen Nayfeh’s “200 Meters,” a film which also won the Cinema for Humanity Audience Award. Hilal Baydarov’s “In Between Dying” won the NETPAC Award for best Asian film.

Other big winners on the night included Teboho Edkins’s “Days of Cannibalism” winning the El Gouna Golden Star for documentary film, Jasmine Trinca’s “Being My Mom” took home best short film, Kaouther Ben Hania won best Arab narrative film for “The Man Who Sold His Skin” and Lina Soualem’s “Their Algeria” won best Arab documentary film.

The festival was particularly fruitful for Soualem, as her CineGouna Springboard project “Bye Bye Tiberias,” about the family of her mother, actress Hiam Abbas (“Succession”), was awarded three development grants worth $30,000.

Station Films, the new production company of Amjad Abu Alala (“You Will Die at 20”), also won several awards, including the best project in development, for “Goodbye Julia,” a domestic drama set in 2005 to be directed by Mohamed Kordofani. The Egyptian project “Hamlet From the Slums” by Ahmed Fawzi-Saleh was the big local beneficiary of production grants.

The El Gouna festival was the first major festival to take place physically in the Middle East since the global pandemic. The festival shifted its date from September to the late October slot. The closing ceremony saw festival founder Samih Sawiris thank the Ministry of Health for partnering with the film festival to make the event possible.

The festival said it was taking their cue from Venice, but while there were temperature checks to enter the main festival hubs and cinemas, social distancing and mask-wearing were less in evidence. The optics of photographs on social media of parties where attendees were in close contact and not wearing masks at parties, were not good at a time when European countries were announcing new lockdown measures.

The festival’s international guests received PCR tests before they caught their flights home, but the festival did not reveal the number of positive tests at the time of publication.

In mitigation, the new Festival Plaza where most events took place was open-air, as was the main cinema. For all official events, social distancing was maintained, and the organizers left it up to the industry guests on whether to attend parties or not.

The festival did not officially respond when the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk (ICFR) sounded the alarm for producer Moataz Abdelwahab, who was arrested in May on charges of joining a “terrorist organization” and “spreading false news.” ICFR said these accusations were connected to films sold to and aired on Al Jazeera’s documentary channel. Abdelwahab’s credits include Tamer Ezzat’s musical drama “When We’re Born,” which world premiered at El Gouna last year.

The producer’s forthcoming credits include “Curfew,” directed by El Gouna artistic director Amir Ramses, which is due to world premiere at the Cairo Film Festival in December. Question marks remain over whether that even will take place given the worsening corona situation around the globe, and the concentration of the population in Cairo compared to the spacious El Gouna resort.

The El Gouna fest is the brainchild of Egyptian telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris, whose brother Samih built the El Gouna resort in a swath of desert near Hurghada, a tourist town 250 miles south of Cairo. Samih was in attendance on the final day of the festival promoting environmental conservation as they discussed Philip Hamilton’s new film “Ocean Souls.”

El Gouna is the first destination in Africa and the Arab region to receive the Global Green Award, sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program. This award is handed to cities displaying substantial measures and efforts in progress within the field of environmental sustainability.

Overall festival director Intishal Al Timimi will be ecstatic that the event, which featured around 65 films, reached a successful conclusion and even managed to have some of the famed festival atmosphere that has been missing from other physical events. But to sample it, one had to be brave enough to risk some close-proximity without masks in open-air venues.

For a complete list of winners go here.