Breaking taboos

Just a few days before this interesting program of Egyptian films was included as Film Programmes’ season farewell program, Yahoo News published the story that the great Egyptian cineaste Youssef Chahine was taken from Cairo to an intensive care unit in a Parisian hospital where he is currently lying in a coma due to a serious brain hemorrhage. Actually, this program is a logical sequel to last year’s Chahine retrospective in Tuškanac, held within the Mediterranean Games festival in Zagreb, as well as a reminder of the fact that besides Chahine, the Egyptian scene gave birth to a series of intriguing authors, whether cineastes who like to flirt with high art or those who deal in populism. Naturally, this program also includes the ultimate Egyptian classics such as Al Imam’s Between Two Palaces, whose screenplay based on his own novel was written by the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. He was also the co-screenwriter of the uproarious comedy by Salah Abouseif Between Heaven and Earth. Moreover, it was unavoidable to include at least one Chahine’s film in this program. This time it is the first part of his autobiographical trilogy about Alexandria.

As early as the film The Night of Counting the Years, from far away 1969, whose title sounds like some Hollywood B horror, Egyptian film started to break taboos. The author Chadi Abdel Salam’s brazen questioning of cultural imperialism in the opposite direction can in a way be regarded as a precursor of anti-globalism (instead of selling Coca Cola to Egyptians, western merchants steal rare archeological artifacts from Egyptian tombs and take them west, which causes a seemingly insurmountable moral dilemma for a local leader). However, unlike political taboos, the radical breaking of sexual taboos began only in the 1990s when the audacious Hani Khalifa in Sleepless Nights makes use of the typical populist genre of romantic comedy to speak out about some forbidden topics such as the sexual dissatisfaction of women, even though the mere thought of such issues in Egyptian films was regarded as heresy. Nevertheless, however much Khalifa’s entertaining film can be treated as a “dirty” antipode to the so-called “clean film” (cinema nadhifa), which does not insult the audience’s conservative sensibilities, in the end a caring mother forgives her husband’s infidelity after giving birth to their second child.

It was Khalifa who paved way for the new and bravest generation of Egyptian filmmakers such as the festivals’ pet Marwan Hamed (The Yacoubian Building) whose “de-tabooization” stretches to topics such as homosexuality, political corruption, fundamentalism and political torture as well as the excellent Tahani Rached who in her suggestive documentary El Banate dol showed us the daily lives of Cairo prostitutes. Rached’s fascination was later followed by Mohamed Mostafa who in his acclaimed debut Leisure Time, based on a seventeen year old boy’s screenplay, hired non-professional teenage actors. Chahine could be very proud of such a generation of filmmakers. Hamed’s “heavy” piece was the most popular Egyptian film in 2006, thus cast from their throne the unconquerable populist comedies that for years ruled Egyptian box offices. (Dragan Rubeša)