Thursday,21 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)
Thursday,21 June, 2018
Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

We, the Jacksons

Writing from the first round of the much touted El Gouna Film Festival on the Red Sea coast, Soha Hesham covers the highlights


The Third Murder

The first El Gouna Film Festival (GFF, 22-29 September) opened last Friday in the presence of founders Naguib and Samih Sawiris, director Intishal El Timimi and the two honourees: Lebanese film critic Ibrahim Al-Aris and Egyptian comedy legend Adel Imam, who stated in his address, “A country without art is a country without conscience.”

Son of Sofia

Egypt’s first ever private-sector festival, El Gouna boasts high-profile jurors: American producer Sarah Johnson (heading the narrative feature competition);  former Tribeca and Venice festival consultant Deborah Young (heading the documentary feature competition); actors Nelly Karim (heading the short films competition), Lyes Salem, Sitora Alieva, Anissa Daoud and Nina Rodríguez; directors Osama Fawzi, Sean Mcallister, Najwa Najjar and Ali Mostafa; composer Tamer Karawan; producer Subniv Babuta; critics critic David D’Arcy and Mark Adams, the latter also the Edinburgh International Film Festival director.

Sheikh Jackson

El Gouna opened with Egyptian filmmaker Amr Salama’s long-awaited Sheikh Jackson, which had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and was selected for the 2018 Oscars. Set in Alexandria in 2009 and featuring Ahmed Al-Fishawi as Khaled, a Salafi preacher living with his wife Aisha (Amina Khalil) and his daughter. Khaled’s story begins with news of the death of the pop legend Michael Jackson, who turns out to have been the younger Khaled’s idol. Ahmed Beshari’s excellent cinematography complements dance scenes choreographed by Badawi Mustafa to musical mixes by Stéphane de Rocquigny to deliver the story.

The screenplay, co-written by Salama and Omar Khaled, follows Khaled’s development from childhood (when he is played by Omar Ayman) through young adulthood (Ahmed Malek) to the present character: a man desperate to achieve salvation through religion but so unable to shake off his un-Islamic passion that his faith is undermined. Jackson (played by Carlo Riley) begins to appear to him during prayers, bringing back images of himself as a Jackson look-alike practising the legendary dance moves while locked up in his room: a powerful sequence that combines musical tracks.

Khaled seeks help with a female psychiatrist (Basma), with whom he gradually shares his story: a despotic, secular father (Maged Al-Kedwani), who not only took a dim view of Jackson but also forced Khaled to become a bodybuilder like himself, subjecting him to an endless series of women replacing his mother (Dorra), who died early having been a secret admirer. Fed up, Khaled moves to Cairo to live with his maternal uncle, a fundamentalist who determines his path.

Salama does occasionally fall into cliche – when Khaled is having his car fixed at the mechanic’s and the sound of soldering and hammering develops into a Jackson tune, for example – but the film maintains a light-hearted mood and a touch of sarcasm, using the King of Pop as a way to express society’s contradictions. Al-Fishawi, who obviously made a tremendous effort to master the Quranic Arabic required of a Salafi imam, gave an all-in-all excellent performance despite unconvincing moments.

Sheikh Jackson ends with a fantastical dream that brings together all of Khaled’s issues and anxieties and channels them into the Jackson obsession. A somewhat far-fetched scene involving a weak animation sequence, it nonetheless paves the way to a final resolution with Khaled visiting his father’s house for the first time in many years; he had refused to set foot in the irreligious house. 


Another highlight at El Gouna is Son of Sofia, the second feature film by filmmaker Elina Psykou after The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas (2013), which won the Jury Award at the Tribeca Film Festival and a special jury award at the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival. The film opens with Sofia (Valery Tcheplanowa) waiting for her 11-year-old son Misha (Viktor Khomut) to arrive at Athens airport during the 2004 Olympic Games. Their warm reunion follows a long separation and the death of Misha’s father, back in Russia. Sofia explains to Misha that they are staying with Mr Nikos (Thanasis Papageorgiou), the elderly man for whom she allegedly works.

Misha soon feels trapped, with Mr Nikos’s patriarchal authority demanding that Misha must learn Greek – forcing Sofia to stop speaking Russian to him, and his constant presence leaving very little time for him to be alone with his mother and Greece giving him a culture shock. Khomut’s acting is deeply expressive, his blank, sorrowful communicating just the right emotion.

Mr Nikos was a children’s programme presenter back in the 1970s, and he tries to win Misha over by re-presenting his analysis of the fairy tales performed on his programme. This has barely had time to work when Misha discovers that Sofia is married to Mr Nikos and runs away from home, staying with a Ukranian teenager he met. While he is with Victor, Misha begins to fantasise about the fairytale creatures he heard about. And it is this as much as anything that drives him to return home. Now Mr Nikos consolidates his relationship with Misha, declaring him his heir, buying him presents and eventually opening the secret locked room to him. Inside Misha finds the world of which he has been dreaming, which will eventually take over the real world completely.

Psykou has a unique style using minimal camera movement and mostly indoor scenes, and showing Misha’s experience more through his facial expressions than any dialogue. The world is the maze-like house, full of doorways and magic, in which Misha must learn to live.

Sofia’s submission to her husband followed by Mr Nikos’s illness led to Misha’s nightmares, culminating in a fancy-dress party that brings the tension to a powerful if fantastical resolution.


A third highlight, nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, was the Japanese film The Third Murder, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. A deeply analytical yet also passionate film, it presents itself as a traditional murder mystery but it goes far beyond that to explore the ethical complications of the death penalty, which remains legal in Japan.

Misumi (Koji Yakusho) has pled guilty to beating a man to death, an offence made worse by the fact that he also robbed his victim. As the film progresses, it becomes clear he had just been released from prison for a similar offence in the 1980s; this being his third murder, he will definitely be hanged. The prosecutor, Shigemori (Masharu Fukuyama) is the son of a retired judge who looked into the case of Misumi 30 years before. He has no evidence beyond Misumi’s confession, but by the end of the trial this only strengthens Misumi’s position and Shigemori.

In the meantime other stories emerge: Misumi was given a share of the victim’s life insurance by the man’s wife, who asked him to commit the murder; Misumi murdered the man, a friend, after he assaulted his slightly disabled teenage daughter Saki (Hirose Suzu), who is friendly with Misumi and visits him from time to time... Evidently all the stories – including one that doesn’t emerge until the very end – are true. Katsya Imai’s photography and Ludovico Einaudi’s music bring Koreeda’s script to life in moving and thought-provoking ways.


Other highlights of the festival include Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri receiving Variety’s Arab Talent of the Year Award for The Insult, starring Palestinian actor Kamel El Basha, which premiered at Venice and was chosen as Lebanon’s 2018 Oscar entry. Doueiri’s West Beirut (1998) won the François Chalais Award at Cannes, the FIPRESCI at Toronto and the audience award at the Brussels International Film Festival. The Attack (2012) remains banned in Lebanon because parts of it were filmed in Tel Aviv.

But perhaps the most important aspect of El Gouna Film Festival is the CineGouna Springboard initiative, through which Arab filmmakers present their work-in-progress to potential co-producers, distributors, sales agents, festival programmers and fund directors through one-on-one meetings with such industry leaders as Anna Purkrabkova from the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Dina Harb of Bithmark Films, Mridu Mona Chandra from the Tribeca Film Institute, among many others. Creative mentors available include film teacher Maamoun Hassan, Iraqi filmmaker Kais Al-Zubaidi and Toronto-based film industry advisor Hayet Benkara.

Jurors include Alessandra Speciale from the Venice Film Festival, Nezar Andary from Zayed University and Hala Galal from SEMAT Production and Distribution. According to Galal, “there is a genuine and sincere interest from producers and distributors to find out about the projects, which means these projects have genuine potential. The most important thing is that the festival organised a real market and this is unprecedented in Egypt.” Galal continues to explain the six awards presented as follows “$20,000 from GFF, $10,000 from New Century Production, $10,000 from Creative Media Ventures ‘Ebda3’, $5,000 from Mentor Arabia, $5,000 from Film Factory to Movie Production and two awards from AROMA Studios with the sum of $5,000 each for film in development and post-production services.”

With an impressive array of awards – $20,000 from GFF, $10,000 from New Century Production, $10,000 from Creative Media Ventures ‘Ebda3’, $5,000 from Mentor Arabia, $5,000 from Film Factory and two $5,000 awards from AROMA – many projects at various stages of development stand to benefit.

The projects are divided into works in progress and projects in development. The former are Counting Tiles (Cynthia Shair, Lebanon), Hamam Sokhn (Hot Bath) (Manal Khaled, Egypt), In Search of Essam Abdallah (Yasser Naeem, Egypt), Youmeddine (Abu Bakr Shawki, Egypt); the latter, 200 Meters (Amin Nayfeh, Palestine), The Balcony of Paradise (Amr Abdel Hadi, Jordan), The House of Silence (Karim Traidia, Algeria), Backstage (Afef Ben Mahmoud, Tunisia/ Morocco), Costa Brava (Mounia Akl, Lebanon), Five Days of Grace (Saleh Nas, Bahrain), Noura in Wonderland (Hinde Boujemaa, Tunisia), Abu Zaabal 1989 (Bassam Mortada, Egypt), Transit (Islam Kamal, Egypt), Two Rooms and a Parlor (Sherif El Bendary, Egypt), The Seventh Day Butterfly (Karim Hanafy, Egypt) and The Last Rescue (Tamer Ezzat, Egypt).

Ezzat was impressed: “I believe this festival is organised to international standards as the GFF brings to the Egyptian film industry some of the most renowned and professional cinema figures that we used to meet at the most acclaimed international film festivals around the world and it’s a significant opportunity to participate in this event. I believe my project will find a producer through it. I believe the festival has proved a success thanks to these valuable and significant activities”.

Another initiative for supporting young talent is Tayarah, an online production hub founded in 2014 that gave a special workshop during the festival offering young and aspiring talents the opportunity to present their scripts and treatments to be evaluated by six professional panelists; Tunisian actress Hend Sabri, director Amr Salama, screenwriter Tamer Habib, director Mridu Chandra and co-founder of Tayarah Mohamed Al-Bassiouni and head of Products and Services of Vodafone Egypt Yosr Taher. Sabri along with businessman Ahmed Al-Sherif collaborated with Tayarah in 2016 to widen its spectrum and include more talents. Tayarah received over 700 film projects, but only five were selected to participate in a one-day workshop to be evaluated.

The final three winners were announced on Sunday: Fork and Knife, a script by Adam Abdelghafar, took first place, and its production will be fully covered by Tayarah; Outrageous Behaviour by Khaled Khellah took second place, an award of LE10,000; and Cindrella by director Youssef Nasser and screenwriter Ahmed Nabil took third place, winning LE5,000.

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