One particular news item caught my attention last week. According to reports, scriptwriter Ahmed Saleh denounced the cinematic treatment of his “Kobolat Masrooka (Stolen Kisses) script, accusing director Khaled El Haggar of tarnishing his work and forcing scandalous sex scenes into the drama.
Saleh was so outraged and offended by the final outcome that he wanted to pull the film from theaters.
Shortly after Saleh’s announcements were published, young actress Randa El Beheiry voiced her disdain for the film – for which she won an award last August in the Alexandria International Film Festival – also due to the copious love scenes she said the film contains.
I was dumbstruck by the news, to say the least. Saleh and El Beheiry’s remarks give the impression of soft-core trash exploiting its young attractive cast members to entice the sexually repressed masses. The fact of the matter is “Stolen Kisses is a mediocre teen relationship melodrama too tame, too unimaginative to submit a weighty social commentary or, most importantly, to provoke. Egyptian censors seemed to agree.
Unlike Khaled Youssef’s recent contentious films, “Stolen Kisses wasn’t even slammed with the “Adults Only tag, the Egyptian equivalent of an R rating.
The biggest surprise is that hardly any critic, intellectual or film professional rose to fend off the exaggerated reports and set the record straight. Instead, like a flock of blind sheep, everyone snatched the chance to attack the film, not for its artistry, but, as usual, for its “steamy sex scenes!
The most debasing of these assaults were targeted against young starlet Yousra El Lozy who defended her much talked-about scenes of the film, asserting that there’s nothing remotely wrong with them and that even her father, theater professor Mahmoud El Lozy, encouraged her to accept the role and not shy away from shooting those scenes.
The picture several publications depicted of the “Alexandria, New York star is that of a depraved, reckless young woman, not in touch with the moral codes of the society she lives in. Her father also received plentiful sarcastic comments that portrayed him as an ultra liberal parent with bizarre, foreign ethics.
The “Clean Cinema The bamboozling hoopla that has accompanied “Stolen Kisses is the latest in a grand campaign to preserve the so-called “Al-Cinema Al-Nazeefa (Clean Cinema), a new cinematic principle obliging filmmakers to keep their films sex-free.
The concept was born with the emergence of the new mainstream film wave 11 years ago. Female stars of the new wave – Mona Zaki, Hanan Turk, Ghada Adel, and Hala Shiha, among others – refused to perform any love scenes or kiss on screen.
Apart from the works of the auteurs Dauod Abdel Sayed, Samir Seif and Khaled Youssef, the only active film auteur working today, only a small number of films of the past 11 years featured any onscreen kisses. Instead, the sexless stars are always seen cuddling in an unconvincing brotherly fashion. Films could contain vulgarity, stereotyping and racial and sexist slurs as long as sex was kept at bay.
The result, as revered writer Farida El Shoubashy said last week in a TV program, is a “hypocritical, deceptive cinema that bears no resemblance to reality.
The current state of cinema is a far cry from the earlier eras that says more about present society than the concealed backstage dynamics of Egyptian filmmaking.
Classic vs. 80s conservatism Prior to the establishment of the Egyptian film industry in the 1920s, female singers and dancers had a bad reputation. The first female artists of the region were either Jewesses or Syrian Christians. By the early 1920s, the status of female entertainers had improved, allowing Muslim performers, along with legions of other players from various ethnicities, to enter the industry.
Founded by expatriates, the industry adopted the Hollywood model, focusing primarily on musicals and comedies. Legendary belly dancers, such as Tahia Karioka, Samia Gamal and Naiema Akef, were as popular and respected as the more conservative chanteuses Um Kolthoum and Leila Mourad.
Despite the efforts of the subsequent Nasser regime to encourage production of religious works alongside films with strong social messages, comedies and musicals remained the top drawers for decades to come.
For more than 60 years, Egyptian cinema remained secular, for the most part. Sex was not the intimidating taboo it has grown to be. Great filmmakers such as Barakat, Youssef Chahine, Salah Abou Seif and Hussein Kamal, didn’t shy from confronting it, and the public was not as judgmental and narrow-minded as it is now.
The return of Gulf émigrés to spread the Wahabi culture – and Sadat’s decision to allow Islamist group to engage in politics in an effort to combat communism – changed the Egyptian social landscape for good. The crumbling Egyptian film industry became another battleground between Islamists and the secular government.
In her book “Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class and Nation, esteemed film scholar Viola Shafik says the real turning point for Egyptian cinema was the negative campaign against female entertainers that was led by widely influential Islamic preachers in the mid-1980s.
“The most influential voice was that of Sheikh Mitwalli Al-Sha’rawi, who assessed the role of actresses in the entertainment industry negatively, because they ‘incite sexual instincts,’ writes Shafik. “The equally popular Sheikh Mohamed Al-Ghazali cited arts in the same breath as ‘atheism and prostitution.’
The fact of the matter is Al-Sha’rawi’s and Al-Ghazali’s views were actually rooted in Victorian Christian Protestant doctrines few dared to question or oppose. The wave of actresses veiling was the most immediate consequence of the campaign and an unheralded wave of conservatism took over Egyptian cinema.
The biggest causalities of this wave were the aforementioned film auteurs. The mavericks of the 80s – Abdel Sayed, Seif, Khairy Beshara and until recently, Mohamed Khan – struggled to fit in with the new system.
Abdel Sayed, arguably the greatest living Egyptian filmmaker, has been struggling for a number of years to find funding for his script “Rasa’il Al-Bahr (Messages from the Sea), which centers on a morose handicapped man caught in a mysterious erotic relationship.
According to Shafik, the country’s two biggest stars Ahmed Helmi and Ahmed El Sakka turned the role down because it “seemed incompatible with their prevalent personas. The film finally found its leading man this year with heartthrob Asser Yassin after the Ministry of Culture agreed to finance the film.
Cinematic hypocrisy For the first time in its long history, Egyptian cinema has been turned into a microcosm of the same hypocritical society that is shaping it. The most ironic and disgruntling aspect of all this is how nearly every citizen in the country is taking it upon himself to act like a devout moralist at a time when sexual harassment is at record high.
More than 90 percent of all web-based activities on mobile phones are porn-related while porn sites remain the most navigated pages on the web in Egypt.
I can’t believe that an average moviegoer would pay LE 30 to watch the two brief, benign sex scenes in “Stolen Kisses when he can get all the action he wants for free with a click of a button. It may have worked 20 years ago; it simply doesn’t work now.
As Youssef repeatedly said in previous interviews, sex has always been an integral part of Egyptian cinema accepted by all moviegoers from diverse classes and backgrounds in the past. Female stars were beauty icons; independent, smart and commanding. The stars of the new wave, who function primarily as supporting props to the current male-driven cinema, don’t hold a candle to them.
Artistic standards are obviously not the sole yardstick upon which films are evaluated and criticized. The age of Hind Rostom and Soad Hosni is over; an Egyptian actress appearing on screen in a bathing suit could possibly lead to a national scandal these days.
Egypt is going back to the D
ark Ages where rational arguments and criticism are suppressed by new rules taken at face value. Although I’m not quite fond of either Youssef or El Haggar, Egyptian cinema desperately need filmmakers like them to break the hegemony of the new of wave stars and to obliterate the so-called “Clean Cinema.