El Gouna is a small gated town, founded by two Egyptian brothers, Naguib Sawiris and Samih Sawiris, and last year, they decided to enrich what was actually a Red Sea resort, extremely popular with Europeans because of its sun and sand and surf, with a movie festival. Under Intishal Al Timimi – who was once in charge of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival before it drew its curtains – the El Gouna Film Festival began its journey in 2017.
Its second edition , which ended the other day, had about 70 movies from 40-odd countries, and what surprised me was the bold cinema that was screened. Much like the town, which is an epitome of dichotomy versus the rest of Egypt, with women most provocatively dressed in the skimpiest of clothes, the Festival presented films that which brutally frank and shockingly honest. I was left wondering whether a country like Egypt with its conservative outlook could allow such cinema to be screened (and women to be dressed so). But it did, and some of the Festival's movies hammered on some of the most disturbing happenings in the region – Middle East North Africa, shortened as MENA.
Algerian director Merzak Allouache's Divine Wind is shot in black and white, and explores how young men are seduced into terrorism. The film shows us two characters, a young sophisticated man, dashing and debonair, and a slightly older woman, who is a hardcore ISIS agent. A hard critic of Islamic terrorism, Allouache has repeatedly returned to the subject.
Soft spoken Amine (Mohamed Oughlis) is waiting for his first suicide mission, and is seen sobbing at what is to befall him. His father knows that something is wrong with the boy, who lies about being in Spain looking for a job. It looks like Amine is unhappy about leaving his family and getting into dangerous territory. And then appears Nour (Sarah Layssac), full covered, a hardened militant out to take Amine on his mission. When she sees him dithering, she seduces him by making love – which in this case has just the opposite effect on him. At one point, he pleads with her. Let us run away to Italy and nobody will ever find us, he implores, but she is hardened beyond reason or love or sex.
It is very easy to understand what Nour is. Not so easy to fathom is why the handsome guy has got himself pushed into this dark abyss. She is an ISIS recruiter, and has sent 17 young Swiss girls to terrorist cells. In contrast, Amine wants to fight, but not die – an impossibility in the kind of pit he has let himself into.
There comes a time in the movie, when we wish that the inevitable does not happen, but more importantly, what impressed me most was the stand the helmer and the film take. It is not just a hard look at the tragedy of extremism, but also a powerful look at the futility of it all. This is impossible to miss.
Mohamed Tayeb Laggoune’s gorgeous black and white cinematography underlines the evil through Nour's black hijab and hardened face contrasted with the man's white clothes and softer features. Can we see a ray of hope in him? Maybe, and Divine Wind presents this picture with a conflicting range of emotions.
The other title which caught my attention was Bassam Jarbawi's Screwdriver. Set in Palestine and Israel, it is a compelling story of what torture and isolation can do to a man — in this case Zaid (played by Zaid Bakri), a former basketball champion.
When Zaid's best friend is shot dead by a sniper on the West Bank, his world turns upside down. Zaid gets hold of a gun and shoots an Israeli passerby. Zaid is caught and jailed for 15 years in Israel. He becomes a psychological and physical wreck. When he returns home, it seems like an exercise in futility. While his friends and family who had virtually abandoned him when he was in jail make a pretence of a celebration, an attractive television reporter wants to capitalise on the opportunity that his story can offer. He soon realises that he is not even able to connect with his mother, let alone his friends. It is only his admirer, Salma (Maya Omaia Keesh), who appears to have a genuine fondness for him.
The movie transcends the blurred lines between hallucination and reality, between a psychological thriller and a social drama. Till a time when anger and panic begin to eclipse reason and logic.
(Author, commentator and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran covered the recent edition of the El Gouna Film Festival )