A strong Arab and international presence graced the second Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF, 1-10 December), whether through prominent celebrities and filmmakers or the rich and varied programme, featuring artistic activities that took place on the sidelines of the festival itself. Egyptian cinema and its stars had a fair share of all that.
In the Red Sea Treasures programme, for example, three classic Egyptian films that the the Red Sea Film Festival Foundation contributed to restoring were screened.
The Red Sea Treasures program is dedicated to a selection of unmissable gems, the masterpieces that have inspired generations of directors, many screened for the first time in Saudi Arabia on newly restored prints.
The three Egyptian classics – restored in 2020, and 2022 with the contribution of the the Red Sea Film Festival Foundation and screened in RSIFF – are the romantic musical Love In Karnak (1967) by director and folk dance icon Ali Reda, co-founder and choreographer of the legendary Reda Troupe. The film was screened at the open-air theatre overlooking Jeddah’s Corniche, in the presence of the renowned actress Sherine Reda, the daughter of the late director.
Love In Karnak is a sparkling showcase for the trailblazing Reda Troupe, set against the dramatic backdrop of Luxor, with its ancient Pharaonic monuments.
The second film is Watch Out For ZouZou (1972) by Hassan Al-Imam, starring the late Egyptian icon Suad Hosni, and the renowned actor Hussein Fahmy, who attended the present screening. According to Antoine Khalife, the RSIFF director of Arab programs and film classics, Al-Imam’s classic film which had a year-long thetre run on its release in 1972 is now restored to its full glory. “The songs and dances that made it so winning, written by poet Salah Jaheen and composer Kamal Al Taweel, are now musical standards all across the Arab world. However, it was the very modern figure of Zouzou, Soad Hosni, a.k.a the Cinderella of Egyptian cinema, that was the main attraction.”
The third Egyptian classic restored in collaboration with the Red Sea Film Festival Foundation and first screened in the first round of the festival – it had a second screening at the Red Sea Outdoor Theatre on Al Hamra Corniche this year – is Ice Cream in Glym (1992) by the prominent director Khairy Beshara. The screening was introduced by Egyptian film critic Mohamed Sayed Abdel Rehim, author of Khairy Beshara: The Rebel, which was published by the Red Sea Film Festival in 2020. According to Abdel Rehim, after more than 25 years, this film still immediately comes to mind once the Egyptian superstar Amr Diab is mentioned. The pop star plays the main character, Saif. “The film represents a young generation looking for its identity, and is still seen as the voice of youth and their hopes and aspirations,” Abdel Rehim said.
Another important artistic event celebrating Egyptian cinema took place in cooperation with Art Jameel on the sidelines of the festival this year. The event consisted of an archival exhibition of the late Egyptian photographer Gamal Fahmy’s work, and a Youssef Chahine film retrospective. The programme invited the audience to discover unique images by the great photographer and rediscover some of the most iconic titles that have come to define the history of Arab cinema.
Coinciding with Hayy Jameel’s first anniversary, Hayy Cinema, a permanent space developed by Art Jameel, opened to the public – the first art house cinema in Saudi Arabia. Hayy Cinema is defined by its unique approach of curated and research-oriented content, intended to nurture the audience with an ethos of curiosity and inclusivity, while furthering research into the history of independent film in the region. It includes a 168-seat theatre, a 30-seat community screening room, a multimedia library, and an educational space. Planned as a year-round home for the Saudi film community and local cinephiles, the cinema is designed by Jeddah-based architectural practice Bricklab, which won an international architectural competition run by Art Jameel.
According to Fady Jameel, founder and chairman of Art Jameel, Hayy Cinema is designed as a year-round “home from home” for Saudi filmmakers, cinephiles and film enthusiasts of all ages. “It’s a great pleasure for Art Jameel to collaborate with the festival on the opening programme and to work so closely together on restoring, preserving and showcasing the archives of Arab cinema’s most defining figures.”
The exhibition of Fahmy’s work, on the other hand, titled As Seen, is co-curated by Jeddah-based writer and director Yaser Hammad and Hayy Cinema Senior Manager Zohra Ait El Jamar. According to Hammad it is a celebration of Egyptian cinema and culture. “Fahmy collaborated with major Egyptian filmmakers, notably Youssef Chahine, Hussein Kamal, Aly Badrakhan, Ali Reda and Said Marzouk. His work was not limited to creating stills during shoots, but also includes behind-the-scenes photography, and photography sessions with filmmakers and actors. His work is an example of great artistic photography, with striking compositions and excellent use of light and shadow. The exhibition runs from 6 December 2022 to 25 March 2023 and is largely drawn from the Red Sea International Film Foundation Archives Collection,” he explained.
The Youssef Chahine film retrospective which opens the Hayy Cinema screening program includes a selection of the filmmaker’s greatest works. Gamal Fahmy took behind-the-scenes photographs of five of Chahine masterpieces. The lineup of Chahine films to be screened on various dates throughout December includes Alexandria, Why? (1979), Alexandria Again and Forever (1990), Adieu Bonaparte (1985), The Sixth Day (1986), and Return of the Prodigal Son (1976).
As part of the celebration of Egyptian cinema, the second RSIFF granted the Egyptian film icon Yousra its Gold Yusr Honorary Award at the opening ceremony. Yousra is an actress, singer and megastar, a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and a member of the Academy. The Egyptian film legend is one of the most recognisable names across the region and she has been gracing the silver screen for more than 50 years. Since the 1970s, Yousra has starred in some of the most important films in the history of Egyptian cinema, appearing in over 100 films. Her roles in film and TV are pioneering and they have inspired generations. In her statement on receiving the honorary award Yousra said, “How can I thank you for all this love? Thank you for this lovely, warm, wonderful moment of my life among great actors and actresses and people who love free cinema. Art and cinema are the memory of humanity. Today, I am proud to have been part of the history of Egyptian and Arab cinema, proud to have worked with so many young people in the new generation, proud of those who will be great artists from Saudi Arabia, and I wish them success.” For his part Mohammed Al Turki, CEO of the RSIFF, said that Egyptian superstar Yousra is one of cinema’s leading ladies, a dedicated activist, and a major cultural figure in the Arab world.
But the grand Egyptian winner at the Red Sea Film Festival this year is director Mourad Mostafa and producer Sawsan Youssef, who won one of the two Red Sea Lodge Awards with a grant of 100,000 USD, for their feature film project Aisha Can’t Fly Anymore. Open to teams of Saudi and Arab directors and producers, the Red Sea Lodge is an intensive creative and professional training program that takes place in partnership with the Torino FilmLab over ten months. Alongside ongoing script development sessions, the programme features a producers’ coaching programme and covers professional development, production, finance, sales and marketing. Following development and meetings with industry professionals, two projects are selected to be awarded the annual Red Sea Lodge production prizes ($100,000 each).
Aisha Can’t Fly Anymore is about a Somali carer for elderly patients living in an Egyptian neighbourhood and witnessing the underworld of African society where there is tension between various groups. Stuck in a loveless relationship, the routine and pressure of dreary work lead her into an impasse. This project is the debut feature of the director Moral Mostafa, whose three award-winning short films – Ward’s Henna Party (2020), Khadija (2021) and What We Don’t Know about Maryam (2021) – all premiered at the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival.
Other celebrated Egyptian include actress and prima ballerina Nelly Karim, who was selected as a member of the main competition jury headed by the legendary director Oliver Stone. The Saudi audience and RSIFF guests met Nelly Karim at an open discussion in one of the festival’s In Conversation events. Another jury member, but in the Virtual Reality competition, was Egyptian-British immersive story director May Abdalla, the winner of – among many others – the 2021 Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival.
Although there were no Egyptian films in the official competitions of the Red Sea International Film Festival this year, Kamla, a feature film by John Ikram Sawers, was selected in the Arab Spectacular programme. The programme is dedicated to finding the pulse of Arab creativity in this carefully curated selection of commercial and independent films, award winners, and regional premieres. The film stars Ingy El Mokadem, May Elghety, Firas Saayed, Salwa Othman, and Loutfy Labib.
On the sidelines of the festival and within the framework of its loud and fun artistic activities, Egypt’s leading hip-hop star Wegz gave an exciting concert at the open theatre overlooking the Al-Hamra Corniche in Jeddah. The Wegz concert announcement reads, “From Alexandria’s grassroot hip-hop scene to the world – WEGZ is one of contemporary Arabic music’s most recognised icons. At just 19 years, he began paving his way to the top with catchy flows and raw, emotional, and relatable lyrics that struck a chord with an entire generation of Egyptian youth. Now, WEGZ is a global pioneer for an Arabic sonic revolution that is taking the world by storm and amassing millions of fans in its wake.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly