CAIRO: It s an odd choice for Egyptian popular entertainment: a bleak movie about corruption, torture and political stagnation in a country where cinematic happy endings are the norm. But audiences are still packing the theaters at a time of widespread discontent in the Arab world.
The Yacoubian Building has been raising controversy, too, and it seems the crowds are coming both for the cast of all-star Egyptian actors and because the unusually in-your-face criticism of the government has struck a chord.
In one scene, a police officer calmly tells a young man he s about to be brutally tortured. Behind the officer, a portrait of President Hosni Mubarak hangs prominently on the police station wall – an unsubtle hint at the blind eye that the government has often turned toward police abuses.
I didn t expect it to be welcomed this way by the Egyptian audience as it s very different from the comedies that attract average Egyptians. The movie is full of taboos and controversial issues, said the film s director, Marwan Hamed. Many in the cinema industry thought it wouldn t be popular among ordinary audiences because it s not an optimistic movie.
The production, the most expensive ever in Egypt at $4 million, also has won praise abroad. It was named best movie at July s Arab World Film Festival in Paris and was shown at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals. At New York s Tribeca Film Festival, Hamed was judged best new filmmaker under the narrative category.
The Yacoubian Building is based on a best-selling novel by Alaa El-Aswani, a dentist turned author. It tells the stories of several disparate characters linked because they all live in the grand and decrepit early 20th century building of the title, a symbol of a bygone golden age in Egypt.
The building was named for an Armenian-Egyptian businessman who built it in the 1930s, before the government s turn to socialism chased off the foreigners who once invigorated Egypt s business life and the growing trend toward fundamentalist Islam killed off liberal social attitudes. El-Aswani has said that in his novel, The building represents the social history of Egypt. Each of the several plots in the movie depicts an aspect of the county s decline.
The poor young man in the police station is raped by his interrogators and turns to Islamic extremism. A corrupt businessman buys a parliament seat, deals drugs and forces his secret, second wife to have an abortion. A young woman has to endure her boss sexual advances to keep her job as she dreams of leaving Egypt.
Egypt has become so harsh on its people, she says in one scene. If there is a chance, the whole nation would leave, not out of hatred, but because people can t put up with the oppression any more. At the center of the drama is an alcoholic basha – a member of Egypt s pre-1950s elite – nostalgic for the glory days, played by Adel Imam, the country s most popular comic actor but in this film a tragic figure.
In another of the film s secrets behind the political and social oppression, one character is gay and takes a policeman as his lover. That plotline was the most controversial since homosexuality is strictly taboo here and, if depicted on film, usually is played for comedy. In this case, the two men talk openly about homosexual love and are even shown getting in bed together.
The movie is very honest, I didn t find it vulgar at all, said Rana Ayad, a 16-year-old student who saw the film.
But her friend Naglaa Ismail disagreed. Does this really happen in Egypt? she said. I didn t like the gay part. But after initial shock over the homosexuality, the political themes resonated more deeply for many, especially after fighting erupted in Lebanon less than a month after the movie opened. The bloodshed heightened worries among many over the future of the Middle East and increased discontent with Arab governments.
The movie reflects the reality, but the reality is more bleak and dark than this, said filmgoer Dina Abdel-Rahman, 31, who works in television.
While the Yacoubian Building in the movie may be a symbol for Egypt, she noted, with what s going on from the destruction and frustration in the Arab world, this could be an Arab building.
Though the movie is set in the 1990s, at the height of an Islamic militant campaign to overthrow Mubarak, its angst rings true today. Mubarak remains in power, opposition activists still are regularly rounded up and promises of political reforms are unfulfilled, Weeks before the film opened, a pro-democracy protester gave a public account of how he was sodomized and tortured in a police station.
There is a big similarity about what s happening in the movie and what is happening now in the region, said Hamed, the 29-year-old director. Life remains very difficult in the region, citizens are oppressed and suffering from the difficulties of daily life. Hardly anything has changed since the 1990s. Things might just be worse.
Still, that the government even allowed the film to be shown points to a greater freedom of expression won as Egypt s reform movement has become more vocal. In the past year and a half, the government has for the most part tolerated street protests that openly denounced Mubarak.
The government even had a pretext to take the censor s knife to the movie amid complaints over the gay scenes, but didn t use it. More than 100 lawmakers demanded the homosexual scenes be cut, but a parliament committee decided to leave the movie intact. Still, some critics deny The Yacoubian Building movie accurately reflects life in Egypt. I m not going to count the abnormal characters in the movie, which is a series of homosexuals and sexually frustrated people, columnist Hamdi Rizq wrote in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. I have no idea from what garbage bin they picked up all these psychological deformities.
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