El Gouna Film Festival Stirs Controversy and Ignites Debate in Egypt
When a fire broke out at the site of the El Gouna film festival a day before it was due to start its 5th edition, many Egyptians celebrated on social media, describing the fire as divine intervention. The organizers refused to resign to God’s will and embarked on a renovation project that entailed employing 3,000 workers around the clock. By the time the guests started trickling on the red carpet, every trace of the fire’s damage was wiped out.
“Was the fire in Mecca that destroyed the holiest Muslim mosque a punishment from God,” wondered the chair of the festival parent company Orascom Development Holding, Samih Sawiris, who personally supervised the repairs, when we sat down for an interview. “Unfortunately, there are societies who hate to see others succeed. Instead of wishing you well, they want you to be miserable like them.”
Samih founded the El Gouna Red Sea resort 30 years ago, attracting the liberal-minded wealthy Egyptians to live in a cultural oasis far away from the stifling conservatism of Egyptian society. In fact, once you cross the security checkpoint that separates the magical town from the rest of Egypt, you can hardly distinguish the Egyptian residents from the European tourists. You won’t see men wearing jalabiyas or women covered in hijabs. Instead, you meet western-minded young men and women in shorts or jeans, hanging out at cafes during the day, and switching into designer clothes at night as they party until the early morning hours.
That little heaven was shielded from the public eye until 2017, when Samih’s brother, Nagib, suggested setting up a film festival at the resort. The glamour of a red-carpet hosting film stars would raise the profile of the desert oasis and attract tourism. So, he promptly agreed in spite of the risk of clashing with the government, which controls all cultural events in the country.
Miraculously, the government gave the brothers the green light, and the first privately-owned film festival in the entire Arab world was born. Using their influence and wealth, the brothers attracted the biggest names in Egypt’s entertainment industry and some high-caliber international and Hollywood stars, such as Oliver Stone, Owen Wilson, Sylvester Stallone and Gerard Depardieu. The festival quickly became one of the most glamourous cultural events in the region. This year, instead of being cajoled by the Sawiris to attend and ferried in by their private jet to El Gouna, Arab celebrities arrived in their own private jets and paid thousands of dollars to just have a seat at the opening ceremony without being invited.
The success of the festival was met with a storm of condemnation on social media, exposing the sharp divisions in the Egyptian society and the Arab world: between the have and have not, the privileged and dispossessed, the conservatives and the liberals. The images of the rich and famous dressed in the latest fashion on the red carpet rendered the festival elitist and debaucherous in the eyes of the conservative Arab masses. Following the opening night this year, a petition was filed by a lawyer at a Cairo court to rescind the festival’s license, citing a breach of the Egyptian moral code.
The Sawiris dismissed the criticism and pressed on. “This guy wants to be famous and he got what he wanted,” Samih sneered. “I am not going to be deterred by a small group of loud voices. They have the right to criticize us, but they don’t have the right to cancel us. I believe that the majority of the Egyptian people are with us, otherwise, I would cancel it myself.”
This year, however, this festival faced its gravest existential challenge, when a few celebrities walked out of the premiere of the award-winning Egyptian movie, Feathers, claiming later in the media that its depiction of abject poverty tarnishes the image of Egypt. Within an hour, a storm of condemnation of the movie and the festival raged on traditional and social media. And a second petition was filed by another lawyer to rescind the festival’s license.
“This is not patriotism,” exclaims Samih. “This is just noise by fame-seekers who contribute nothing to society or to the nation.”
Feathers is the directorial debut of Omar Al-Zuhairi, who eschewed the traditional melodrama that characterizes Egyptian films for absurd comedy and deadpan performances from an unknown cast to tell a surreal story of a nameless poor woman, who has to leave her house for the first time and find work in a patriarchal society in order to feed her family after her husband enters a magician box and emerged a chicken.
Ironically, the film was celebrated by the Egyptian culture minister last July when it won the Grand Prize at the Critics Week at Cannes Film Festival, becoming the first Egyptian feature film in history to collect an award at the prestigious event. Although the minister stood firmly by the film against the backlash when it erupted, the masses and some of the media decried the Cannes award as a western conspiracy against Egypt.
The conspiracy theory was reinforced, when Variety named Al-Zuhairi as the most promising talent in the Middle East, 24 hours after the premiere. The entire Egyptian media responded with a boycott of the festival, rendering the red carpet dark and silent the following evening. Some outlets went further and expunged all their coverage of the festival.
“I am also a responsible and patriotic Egyptian,” tells me the film producer, Mohamed Hefzy. “I wouldn’t produce Feathers if I felt it was in any way damaging to Egypt.”
Hefzy is also the president of the government-run Cairo International Film Festival, which, he admits, has never faced such hostile campaigns. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that Samih is convinced that these attacks are triggered by animosity towards his festival, and not by the alleged unpatriotism of Feathers.
For the first time, the festival finds itself targeted by both liberals and conservatives, online and on the street. Fear and anxiety took hold of the organizers, as they waited for a reaction from the government. To their relief, the government remained silent, which they interpreted as a green light to proceed. So, they rebuffed all calls to deprive Feathers of accolades and gave it the El Gouna Star for the Best Arab Feature film.
“If the people in power were against it, I wouldn’t do it,” Samih exclaims. “There are people in the government and in the media, who have attacked every project my family has undertaken. And will never stop.”
The Sawiris are members of the Christian Coptic minority, who often complain about discrimination by the Muslim majority, but that is also what makes them safe in the eyes of the people in power. “They know that they will never pose risk to them because as Christians, they can’t take over the government,” tells me an Egyptian colleague.
But the government never ceases to flex its muscle and demonstrate its absolute power. Every year, it prevents some of the festival’s Arab guests from entering Egypt to attend their film premiers or serve on its juries’ committees. This year, the authorities detained a London-based Palestinian filmmaker, Said Zaga, upon his arrival to Cairo’s International Airport for six hours, before putting him on a flight back to London, prompting the iconic Palestinian actor, Mohammed Bakri, to cancel attending his honoring ceremony at the festival.
The incident generated headlines around the world but wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the Egyptian media. And when the Palestinian producer, Mai Ode, collected the award on behalf of Barki at the closing ceremony and called upon Egyptian artists to pressure their government to open its doors to their fellow Arab artists, the show’s live broadcast was pulled off the air. Again, the incident was not reported in the Egyptian media.
The following morning, the Iraqi-born festival’s director, Intishal Al Tamimi, described the Palestinian producer’s comments as irresponsible. “This kind of behavior doesn’t yield any positive results. It only jeopardizes the survival of the festival,” he added.
“This is a matter of bureaucracy,” explains Samih. “Approving one’s Visa entails communication with several government departments, and that takes time in Egypt. We will be able to solve this problem if we start with working on Visas with the authorities six months in advance.”
In spite of all its tribulations, the El Gouna film festival has achieved what other festivals in the Arab world have not, namely igniting debates beyond the confines of its screening rooms, reaching the wider public on social media and on the street. How long the Egyptian authorities will tolerate this kind of debate, time will tell.