Whenever you ask, Intishal Al Timimi expresses his love for India. He was a Jury member at the Kerala International film festival. He enjoyed his friendship with so many Indian Filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shaji N Karun, Mani Kaul. He still remembers his days in the Netherlands as Mani Kaul’s friend. He says, “New wave mainstream Indian cinema will soon change the filmmaking in India.” He speaks to senior Indian Film critic Ajit Rai on various issues about his journey of five years as festival director, El Gouna Film Festival Egypt.
It’s been five years since the inception of the El Gouna Film Festival. We may safely say that the festival has successfully passed its first endurance tests, despite the multiple challenges that sometimes materialized in its way onwards, compounded further by the COVID-19 pandemic for two consecutive years.
Intishal Al Timimi talks about his notion of sustainability, based on accumulating and learning from experiences while maintaining the enthusiasm shared in the leadership at the beginning of the festival. His insights are based on a disciplined system that is free of red tape and allows the festival to adapt and be innovative. In his opinion, a balanced mix of these factors is the key reason behind GFF’s success and its vibrant character.
Ajit Rai -“How do you see the five-year run of El Gouna Film Festival?”
Intishal Al Timimi – “Sustainability is the first notion that comes to mind when we talk about the five constructive years of El Gouna Film Festival. Most art and culture events in the Arab world find it difficult to withstand the critical conditions the region faces. Therefore, it is rare to witness the sustenance and survival of a film festival.
Most prominent international film festivals today, especially the ones that started more than 70 years ago, such as Venice, Cannes, Locarno, Karlovy Vary, etc. are not held in major cities or capitals of their respective countries, yet they succeeded in cementing their presence over the years to be what they are now. In the course of its first five years, I feel that GFF was able to establish itself and even stand out in the Arab world. A vital part of any film festival is its ability to steadily move forward and improve the quality of experience it offers. As in, not receding or stagnating. This is what GFF strived for and achieved, thanks to its ambition and focus. I’m reasonably satisfied with the international position that we attained in such a short period, with much of the filmmaking communities knowing about the El Gouna Film Festival and the town of El Gouna. For GFF’s 5th edition and thanks to our growing organizational capability as well as our much more experienced team, I’m looking forward to maintaining the same passion and zeal with which we embarked on the inaugural edition because that’s our safety valve, which is something I believe is not in conflict with our growing organizational capacity and capabilities of our team which has been gaining experience and knowledge since we began.
Ajit Rai – “In your opinion, what does passion add to the direction of a film festival?”
Intishal Al Timimi- “When rigid routines and inflexible regulations dominate a business, it usually loses its relationship with its surroundings. Even though it took place when we were least experienced, the inaugural edition of GFF was the brightest, partially because the people, others as much as us, hadn’t expected its success. The festival was expected to fail or be an imitation of the many film festivals that take place in Egypt and the Arab world.
What happened, however, was that GFF’s inaugural edition created a new challenge. Not just for the festival but the entirety of the cinematic community. Now, neither the press nor the film industry can accept a standard lower than what we set in our inaugural year. Our diligence in maintaining this same spirit of innovation and spontaneity is the reason behind our sustained
Ajit Rai- “How can balance be achieved between a disciplined system and the spirit of innovation?”
Intishal Al Timimi- “The presence of a rigorous system, in any event, protects it from falling into disarray. For us, this concept of order is achieved through a variety of factors. Easy access to the information, knowledge and data that the film festival’s work generates for all team members. This prepares and enables them to handle all kinds of situations that arise during their planning and
Another factor in upholding this balance is the great cooperation between our team members, making everyone feel that they’re a part of the festival, regardless of the size of their job and their age. We do not rely on an administrative bureaucracy or any sort of barriers. Instead, we all work as one big team, with this spirit being reflected in everything we do.
In addition to this, and quite importantly, we have been aided by the efforts of approximately 180 volunteers between the ages of 16 and 19 over the past four years. I would also like to say that before GFF, there had been no sizable volunteer culture in Egyptian film festivals, whereas prestigious international film festivals rely on armies of volunteers to make up a substantial aiding force.”
Ajit Rai- “How is GFF’s organizational aspect reflected in its content, in terms of films, projects, and other activities?”
Intishal Al Timimi- “Directing the festival can be divided into several parts, with each part complementing the other. As the Festival Director of the El Gouna Film Festival, I believe that the program is our top priority. Without a quality program, there would be no festival. Since the inauguration of GFF, we have attained a position we steadily upheld. In the beginning, some distributors had expected us to showcase films that had been released a couple of years ago. However, we insisted on every film being a MENA premiere.
Because of the overwhelming impression that we’ve established in our inaugural edition, it was impossible to underdeliver our promises. Subsequent editions have cemented our position as well.
This, however, is subject to many factors, including the position of Egypt as well as the Arab world in the realm of international film production and distribution.
In terms of international cinematic interest, the Arab world is not that attractive market and represents only a small percentage of it, adding to that the difficulties the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed such as restrictions on movement and travel. At GFF, however, we are determined to overcome all hurdles another factor is that of the technical quality of screenings: without a top-notch state of the art film projection, even the best films in the world would seem less lustrous. Thus, we have put much effort into the technical aspects of our projection systems. Our technical facilities have been so strong and our arrangements so meticulous that we have not had to postpone any film screening in any of the four previous editions of GFF. The availability of DCP copies four years ago was unbelievably scarce, especially since Egypt has a different relationship with international timings and schedules, regarding the working days, weekends, and time zone differences. This makes adjusting our film schedule without any sudden or forced changes a significant challenge. With such a selection of exceptional films, GFF is a hotbed of interaction among filmmakers; their presence in panels, screening discussions, and press interviews is therefore a high priority for us. Naturally, this is all in addition to the presence of a co-production market that has been launched with the establishment of GFF.”
Ajit Rai – “Do you think that El Gouna Film Festival managed to attain the anticipated public attendance over its past four editions?”
Intishal Al Timimi – “Having an audience is an incredibly significant factor because the world’s greatest works of cinematic art are inconsequential without an audience. For example, the inaugural edition of GFF had 18,000 audience members. The 2nd edition had 22,000 audience members and these numbers keep rising.
Its future depends on its ability to attract the greatest possible number of attendees to El Gouna, GFF is specifically designed with the concept of an audience that explicitly visits the resort town to participate in the festival’s activities. We vividly saw this play out in 2020. In its previous editions, GFF’s guests made up approximately half of its total audience while making up only a third of the total audience in its 4th edition. This means that the festival’s public appeal is steadily improving, which holds for audiences, participants and even our sponsors and partners. El Gouna Film Festival’s opportunities are based on being a bridge between its interests and the interests of other parties.
We believe we can create such a win-win situation for all stakeholders. GFF also has another advantage that no other Arab film festival has and, that is, the fact that it has become the film festival for the people. GFF came into being just as people from Egypt and the MENA region were looking forward to a success story — coincidentally, our success story came at the same moment as Egypt’s long-awaited participation in the 2018 World Cup. Another factor that has perhaps contributed to its success has been that GFF was established at a time
in which television and social media gained a much bigger role in our lives. It is notable that in its short five years, GFF has achieved far greater audiences than the Dubai and Abu Dhabi film festivals, which have now been discontinued.”
Ajit Rai – “There’s another factor—your presence as well as the presence of the founding team at the helm of GFF since its inception. Do you think that’s an important factor in this continuing success?”
Intishal Al Timimi – ” I think there are two necessary factors that inspired the confidence of the film fraternity in El Gouna Film
Festival, even before it officially began.
As a result of these factors, international distributors, who previously boycotted the Egyptian market due to fears of piracy, pushed for their films to participate in GFF as well as Cairo International Film Festival and other film festivals. In addition to this, several renowned Arab and international industry professionals such as Forest Whitaker, Atiq Rahimi, Hend Sabry, Hiam Abbass, Mohamed Malas, Abderrahmane Sissako, Youssra, Yousry Nasrallah, and others to be on GFF’s International Advisory Board. Egyptian stars also sought to invite their peers from all over the Arab world to attend the inaugural edition of GFF.
The first of these two factors is the confidence and trust that the Sawiris name inspired in others as well as the financial support, it insinuated and delivered on regarding GFF.
This confidence wasn’t built on false hopes as the Sawiris family has remained firm in its stance behind the artistic integrity of the festival, which is essential to creating an event that commands the respect of artists in the MENA region and the world at large.
Yet another factor is the diversity of backgrounds combined with the unity of purpose of the GFF team —
everyone, including myself, Amir Ramses, and Bushra Rozza. Diversity of background means that many points of view are expressed and taken into account; unity of purpose means an uncompromising focus on the fresh, innovative, and creative cinematic voices from the region and, indeed, all parts of the world.
When conceptualising GFF, I didn’t simply conjure up a plan—I studied all elements of international film festivals, the current state of Arab film festivals, and the possibilities that El Gouna offered so that our program and ambitions would be compatible with what we’re capable.
The concept that GFF adopted for its inaugural edition — the number of films, number of guests, and most importantly, the inclusion of the CineGouna Platform from the very beginning along with the CineGouna Bridge and CineGouna SpringBoard platforms is proof of a strong and stable foundation established since day one.
This success paved a new path for us, achieving the perfect balance of improving the quality of work and attaining optimum results. With GFF’s strong reputation, we no longer have to chase after films. We focus our energies on maintaining this trust, and now the films are offered to us before we express our interest in them. The international cinematic community now recognizes GFF as one of the main outlets for international film productions in the MENA region. For this reason, we can hand-pick premieres in the Arab world.
Through its distinctive artistic footprint, GFF has become an important platform for feature narrative and short films as well as documentaries. Short film distributors now consider GFF to be one of the major film festivals for short films, along with Cannes Film Festival and Venice International Film Festival. As a result, half of our participating short films are having their World Premiere at GFF. In our 5th edition, we invited all the directors and producers of the participating short films to attend, this is unusual among festivals and makes us stand out.”
Ajit Rai- “To what extent might the arrival of new additions on the scene, like the Red Sea International Film Festival, affect GFF’s success?”
Intishal Al Timimi – “Presence of other film festivals in the region will surely reflect positively on the Arab world, and its reputation. Visits by international filmmakers to a film festival in the Arab world removes the alienating
barriers, gradually dispelling the negative perceptions about this part of the world while also attracting positive attention to it.
Perhaps the biggest positive factor is that a healthy competition keeps us all on our toes and makes us much more observant and enthusiastic, pushing us all to be more creative and innovative in our approach. There is bound to be intense competition to confirm World Premieres for Arab films between us all, but an increase in demand should and will be followed by an increase in supply too. In terms of international films, that is not an issue as there are many more than we have room for in the Arab region’s film festivals.
For our upcoming 5th edition, we were able to secure the participation of the best and most important Arab productions for our audiences as well as attract a major part of the best films that premiered at Cannes, Venice, Toronto, or San Sebastián film festivals, among other major ones. The situation in the coming years largely depends on the way we approach our work. Generally, I imagine that every place has its limitations, and forms of censorship, and also its ideas on how to overcome these issues.
What we must do is continue to cooperate because conflict has never done any good to anyone since the beginning of time. For instance, the cooperation between the Cairo International Film Festival and the Red Sea International Film Festival in changing their dates is, in my opinion, one of the strongest forms of cooperation that benefits both parties as well as the rest of us who look forward to attending them.”
Ajit Rai – “In GFF’s 5th edition, you decided to commemorate the iconic Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski through a special program of his most prominent films as well as a retrospective exhibition. So, why Kieślowski?”
Intishal Al Timimi – “There’s a preference for Egyptian and Arab films in GFF’s programs due to its geographic location. Nonetheless, GFF is an international film festival in the Arab world, and so there will always be a significant presence of international films.
I am especially pleased by the diversity of our Special Program, which ranges from Onsi Abou Seif to Federico Fellini, Ihsan Abdel Quddous, Ingmar Bergman, Youssef Chahine, Charlie Chaplin, and, finally, Kieślowski. Kieślowski is one of the legends of cinema, an incredibly inspiring figure internationally. An additional factor is that MK2, a French film company, recently restored his films, which is important to an international film festival like GFF, as it aims to give its audience easy access to watch newly renovated movies on the big screen. We thought it was a good idea to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his passing by presenting his famous trilogy and other significant works.”
Ajit Rai – “GFF’s Career Achievement Award is going to actor Ahmed El Saka, who belongs to the generation of GFF’s 3rd edition Career Achievement Award recipient Mohamed Henedy. What’s the secret behind your interest in this particular generation of actors?”
Intishal Al Timimi – “The Career Achievement Award isn’t about a specific generation. It’s about honouring different forms of
cinema. During the 3rd edition of GFF, we honoured comedy. For the upcoming 5th edition, GFF is honouring
action cinema. Ahmed El Saka is a beloved actor, who is considered a trailblazer of modern action cinema in the Middle East, with his repertoire including over 11 blockbuster films. He has been one of the top leading actors of Egyptian cinema for 20 years now.
This year, GFF is also honouring the Palestinian star Mohammad Bakri, who is not only a pioneer in Palestinian cinema, but is also one of the most prominent Arab cinematic figures. A director as well as a cinema and stage actor, Bakri is one of the few Arab actors with a strong presence in international cinema.
On the international front, we feel especially thrilled to host a master class by the American director Darren Aronofsky, who is currently one of the most prominent cinematic directors.”
Ajit Rai – “The selections for the 5th edition of CineGouna Platform appear to have new names, some of which
include directors who have films screening in the upcoming edition of GFF, while others are directors whose projects have previously received the platform’s support.
Might this indicate that CineGouna Platform’s 5th edition will further elaborate on GFF’s philosophy of supporting aspiring film projects?”
Intishal Al Timimi – ” It’s only natural for each film festival to attract like-minded individuals who share its perspective and cinematic approach. Filmmakers place their trust in GFF to be able to do so and, inversely, the festival too
has faith in their abilities and is prepared to go the distance for them – the common objective is to help out voices in the Arab world in expressing themselves.
I would also like to mention that we don’t measure cinematic projects based just on the names behind them, but first and foremost, based on the quality of their contents and concepts. Over the years, this approach to the management of project selection has generated many impressive results.
Each director has the right to submit up to three films and we can accept them all because what truly matters to us is the project itself, not the name or the nationality of the filmmaker. Preferring to highlight films and projects instead, we do not centre around big names or geographic representation, which makes CineGouna Platform is one of the most prominent platforms on the Arab level. It also doubles as a bridge between most Arab films and international festivals like Cannes Film Festival, Venice International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, and San Sebastián Film Festival, among others.
I believe that the main indicator of CGP’s success is the professionalism of CineGouna Platform’s programming team. Every year, we keep developing while attracting more experience, especially considering that nurturing film projects is relatively new in the Arab world. One result is that the number of distinguished projects is greater than CGP’s capacity to support them.
One of CGP’s notable successes in this edition’s film, Hanging Gardens by Iraqi director Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji, which won the official Jury Prize at the 2021 Final Cut in Venice Workshop. This film was supported by GFF two years ago while it was in development and is supported again in the post-production phase.
The sole reason for our continuous support was our admiration for this ambitious project.”
Ajit Rai – “What are some new things that we can expect from El Gouna Film Festival during its 5th edition?”
Intishal Al Timimi-” As I had already mentioned, the spirit which we embody during every edition of GFF is an innovative spirit
that combines ambition and passion as well as the experience we have garnered over the years. The 5th edition of GFF will include the inauguration of the El Gouna Green Star Award, an environmental film competition, a jury specializing in environmental films who will review the movies.
The idea started as a discussion during the 4th edition of GFF at a post-screening seminar. Now five films discuss environmental issues in the 5th edition of GFF. These films will compete for the El Gouna Green Star Award. In addition to this, GFF will also be hosting the 2nd edition of the Sunbird Stories program, launched by Filmlab: Palestine and Cinephilia Productions is set to
support short films centred around and made for children and adolescents in the Arab world.
For the next three editions of GFF, Sunbird Stories will present its prizes in its workshop’s finale, set to take place during the activities of the El Gouna Film Festival. Another change is taking place for this edition of GFF regarding the FIPRESCI Prize. For our upcoming 5th edition, it was agreed that the FIPRESCI Prize would shift its direction to be presented to the best Asian or African filmmaker’s debut film, varying greatly from past editions wherein this prize was awarded to the best Arab film.
There is also the Khaled Bichara Award, which was developed this year to focus on short films, incorporating 120 Egyptian short film projects. I believe that this competition is one of our most vital additions, as it created a new relationship between GFF and a cinematic community that would previously have had difficulty reaching.”