Finally available to audiences and recently screened at the Luxor Film Festival for European and Egyptian films, Family Secrets is a first in Egyptian cinema: the only movie to star a gay protagonist and one of the very few that portrays gay characters as multi-dimensional human beings instead of villains or props for comic relief.
And yet no matter how “revolutionary” it seems, Family Secrets fails on every cinematic front. With forced acting, wooden dialogue and a chockfull of cringe worthy moments, Family Secrets will be painful for many to sit through, least of all because of its subject matter.
The film’s protagonist is Marawan (Mohamed Mahran) who we first meet in the apartment of a lover. When his lover experiences religious guilt and rejects Marawan, we are taken back to the beginning of his troubles, when he is 17 and comes out to his sister.
We follow Marawan’s struggle with his sexual orientation as he visits multiple psychiatrists, each with a different perspective. At this point, the plot becomes unfocused. Marawan passes his exams, takes revenge on a school teacher, enters college, meets strange men, has interactions with his family and gets robbed. The film’s attempts to portray all facets of his life eventually take it from the original goal of adding depth to merely stalling for time.
A major problem is the performance of its lead character. While the filmmakers touted Mohran as a brave young talent who took a risk on a film with a controversial topic, it is more accurate to say the risk he took was to make his debut in such an uninspired film. His attempts at portraying a gay teenager teeter between laughable and offensive. Mohran’s forced effeminate behaviour resulted in a child-like temperament for a character who is 17 at the beginning of the film and well into his early twenties by the end of it.
Perhaps there is only one merit to Family Secrets besides novelty, and it is honesty. No matter how badly acted, the film’s directness means there are moments when we see echoes of the real stories it is based on. We see a family torn apart because of an issue they do not understand and we see homophobic bullying in schools and medical practices. But the film manages to turn even those rare glimpses melodramatic, naive and sometimes bizarre.
The producer of the film, Ihab Khalil, is a psychiatrist and in the Q&A after the screening, the filmmakers said: “Family Secrets addresses many issues like different approaches in Egypt’s medical community to homosexuality and bullying in schools. There is a real lack of solutions for these individuals. People condemn them but do not try to help.”
Though Khalil’s intentions may be good, choosing to convey them through a film means he is bound by cinematic conventions of quality. Regardless of any problems with the film’s substance (and there are many), the film fails for its lack of artistic merit before anything else.
We can only hope that an emerging genre of LGBT cinema in Egypt will have better to offer than Family Secrets. Ultimately, the film will be judged as a success or a failure by its filmmakers depending on the audience’s reaction to it. It is unclear how this will play out; perhaps an immature audience about the subject needs an equally immature film. Still, there is no mistaking bad cinema, and Family Secrets is as bad as it gets.