A Great Showcase for Arab Film – and the Objectification of Women

Egypt's annual El Gouna festival allows Arab creators to tell their stories without feeling the sword of 'white' cultural criticism dangling overhead. All that is left to do is to make women comfortable there too

Rania Yousief at the El Gouna Film Festival, September 2019
El Gouna Film Festival / Ammar A

My love of film is not my only reason for writing about the El Gouna festival. I love the movies, but I’m crazy about evening dresses and jewelry. If I smell a fashion culture event, my senses light up. When the Queen Noor era came to an end – she was the Middle East’s Princess Diana, even capturing the attention of the Israeli media – I stopped following which celebrities' evening wear dazzled the regional red carpets. But the film festivals in Cannes and Venice, as well as in El Gouna, an Egyptian resort city on the Red Sea coast, definitely offer such an opportunity.

Last year, there was an all-out scandal at the festival over a dress worn by prominent Egyptian actress Rania Youssef. According to journalists, bloggers and other online followers, the dress was too revealing, to say the least, and Youssef was viciously taken to task across the board by the Egyptian media.

And she faced the onslaught alone: No actress, female creative artist or women’s group backed her up. It was heartbreaking to watch a television interview in which she apologized for wearing the revealing garment and, in the process, for insulting the feelings of the Arab nation, the most moral nation in the world.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that dresses, hair, jewelry, shoes and other accessories worn by film stars have become an inseparable feature – sometimes even the main feature – of cultural festivals in the Arab world and elsewhere. Such a colorful and diverse celebration of fashion is wonderful in itself. But it prompts a question as to why it is actresses’ bodies and fashion sense that become the focus of interest, and not the attire and appearance of male actors.

Why do we often hear more about their dresses than about their acting? Why are their bodies and fashion choices an object of criticism and scorn? Why are they simply viewed as an item of clothing traversing the red carpet?

Inherent objectification

And then there’s the question of why actresses cooperate with these events and this inherent objectification? Are they really interested in being marionettes manipulated in the limelight? I would have preferred that they make it clear that they were aware of the game that is being played here, that they rebel against being treated as objects and take advantage of their status to make a statement of substance.

The time has come to eliminate the separate attention paid to the pose, the dress, the actress and the woman – the feminist with something to say and who takes responsibility. The solution lies in being conscious of the shallowness of these events and turning these occasions into opportunities to make feminist statements that bolster our struggle as women.

Every important venue should be used to convey messages that are important to us as women fighting together. There is no separating the locations where we are present, and that includes the red carpet.

Egyptian actresses failed when they declined to back Rania Youssef. It’s as if they made do with buying dresses made by Lebanese super-designers such as Elie Saab or Zuhair Murad, while continuing to play the old game that legitimizes this discourse of objectification.

This year, in late September, Youssef was back at the third El Gouna festival like a lioness – in an even more daring dress. And she came under attack again. This time it was Youssef’s cleavage that threatened the morals of men across the Arab world.

None of this put a halt to the festivities at one of the main film festivals in the region, along with the Annaba Mediterranean film festival in Algeria, the Doha film festival in Qatar and the Marrakech international festival in Morocco.

Thirty-nine countries took part in this year’s event at the Red Sea resort, where 80 films were shown. The festival was founded and is run by businessman Naguib Sawiris, the son of Samih Sawiris, who founded the city in 1990. It is designed to showcase films and filmmaking from around the world, and from the Arab world in particular – bringing together cultures and filmmakers, focusing on the discovery of young talent.

The official program offers its affluent audience films that compete in three categories: feature films, short features and documentaries. In addition, an award is bestowed on a film for its contribution to humanity. Besides the official competition, there is an array of other events, including workshops, lectures and meetings with artists.

This year, 14 films competed in the best feature film category, including “The Father,” directed by Kristina Grozeva from Belgium; “Adam,” directed by Maryam Touzani from Morocco; “Noura’s Dream” by Hinde Boujemaa from Tunisia; and “You Will Die at 20,” by Amjad Abu Alala from Sudan, which took the first prize, after winning the Lion of the Future award at the Venice Film Festival.

Ahmed Abdel Quddous(L), businessman Naguib Sawiris, middle, with his father, Onsi, sitting and architect Shahira Fahmy (R), El Gouna Film Festival, September 21, 2019
\ SAMEH ELKHATIB/ REUTERS

Twenty-four films competed in the short feature category. The winner was “Exam,” directed by Sonya Hadad from Iran. There were 12 documentaries in the competition, including “143 Sahara Street,” by Algerian director Hassen Ferhani; “Tiny Souls” by Dina Naser from Jordan; “Midnight Family” by Luke Lorentzen from the United States; and “Talking about Trees,” directed by Suhaib Gasmelbari from Sudan, who won the award for best documentary.

The awards are not just about recognition. The first prize in the feature film category comes with a $50,000 cash prize. The winning documentary includes a $30,000 cash prize, while the winner of best short film receives $15,000.

The very existence of the El Gouna festival is an achievement in itself since it is designed to create and develop an independent platform for Arab film, rather than drawing inspiration from Western conceptions of filmmaking and art. Many filmmakers in the Arab world complain that their movies don’t make it into international prestigious festivals that have a high threshold for acceptance.

El Gouna enables them to show their work to judges, critics and an audience that speaks their language. It is an intimate Arabic-language space where Arab films can ask critical questions that are unique to their own vernacular, functioning in an environment of autocratic regimes, coups and drastic political change.

Most importantly, it enables Arab creators to tell their stories without feeling the sword of “white” cultural criticism dangling overhead. It provides a space that is devoid of feelings of shame about the story, the narrative and the language.

All that is left to do is to make women, whatever their dress and identity, feel comfortable there too.