Homosexuality, government corruption, prostitution, adultery, and religious extremism are all the subject of a film with the highest budget in the history of the Egyptian cinema. With $3 million, director Marwan Hamed was able to spark controversy and create a box-office record breaker.
The Arab Film Festival, the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, and the Consulate General of Egypt hosted a special film screening of the film followed by a dialogue with director Marwan Hamed and actress Yousra. The event took place at the UCLA campus on Sunday May 13.
Based upon the bestselling novel by Alaa Al Aswani, director Marwan Hamed’s The Yacoubian Building demonstrated that Egypt and perhaps the rest of the Arab world is ready to for up-to-date taboos – ones that are multifaceted.
Armenian community figurehead Jacob Yacoubian erected the historical Yacoubian Building in 1937 in downtown Cairo for foreign diplomats and upper class Egyptians. As time passes and the era of the Pashas is no more, working class Cairo can be evident on the rooftop of this bourgeois building.
The characters are a mixture non-fictional people who lived in the building. Set in modern day Cairo in the 90’s, we live some of the experiences of a few of the tenants. These Characters include Zaki Pasha (Adel Imam), an aging playboy; a French singer and his former love, Christine (Yousra); Haj Azzam (Nour El Sherif), who has risen from a shoeshine boy to a rich businessman; Bosaina (Hind Sabry), an ambitious young woman who lives on the rooftop; and Taha (Mohamed Imam), a disillusioned student who turns to religious fanaticism after becoming frustrated in his attempts to move up in society.
Unlike typical Egyptian films, we see that every main character was a victim, yet far from being perfect. There is no hero and no villain; the characters are portrayed realistically as flawed human beings who come to realize their mistakes at some point. We see many victims of society, government, religious fundamentalism, or simply ignorance. We see the shift between the stories and the connection of each character to the other.
The most controversial character was the privileged Hatim Rashid, editor of Le Caire, a French language daily newspaper and the son of an Egyptian father and a French mother. Rashid is openly homosexual in a society that either condemns or ignores it.
Hamed said that although various controversial topics were tackled in the movie, homosexuality raised more eyebrows than the other issues because it hasn’t been brought up in Egyptian cinema “This would be a non-issue in San Francisco, but for Egypt and the Arab world in general this topic is a taboo,” Hamed explained during a post-screening discussion. “You can’t expect change,” exclaimed Hamed when asked about what he wants the outcome in Egypt to be. “There’s no solution,” said Yousra, the leading actress, “but we want people to think!”
Many in the audience were surprised that such a movie was allowed in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. One after another, audience members poured Hamed with questions about censorship. Hamed explained that censorship is increasingly becoming irrelevant. In the era of YouTube.com there will be no place for censorship, even in conservative societies such as the Arab world. According to the director, the only place where the film was heavily censored was Kuwait, where the gay character was completely removed.
One audience member, Saudi filmmaker Fahmi Farahat, expressed his satisfaction with the film. “I commend director Marwan Hamed for this excellent work, which is probably the first Egyptian film comparable to what we see in Hollywood,” said Farahat. “In addition, the film was very tasteful. We got the film’s message without scenes of nudity or vulgarity, which adds to Hamed’s credibility,” Farahat continued.
Among the attendees who enjoyed the film was Palestinian filmmaker and Golden Globe winner Hani Abu As’ad of Paradise Now. Abu As’ad praised the film and thanked Hamed and actress Yousra for their hard work.