Egyptian Hollywood: Sex still sells

A debate has surfaced in Egyptian cinema circles that pits the "boobs and butts" video clip culture against the efforts of so-called "serious" filmmaking. With limited financing, the battle is bound to be heated as Mohamad Abdurlrahman reports.
egyptian cinema
Dolly Chahine and Ahmad Fahmi in a scene from the movie "No Censorship" ©

BEIRUT, February, 5, 2009 (MENASSAT) - There is an on-going debate in Egyptian film circles that is pitting so-called serious filmmakers with the video clip generation of filmmakers that are pimping pop stars as movie stars in order to turn profits at the box office.

At last year's Cairo International Film Festival legendary Egyptian actor Adel Imam lent his voice to the debate, informally classifying films in two categories - those that have story lines and those that rely on "hot scenes."

Hot or not?

The Egyptian film industry has organized an entire discourse around what Imam also called "clean" movies that deal with more wholesome story matter and take on the Egyptian censorship board's rating of General Audience, available for everyone to view.

In the early 2000s the Egyptian movie scene raved about the number of "clean" movies being released - films the Egyptian censorship board had no problems endorsing.

As a result, the amount of funding for production rose drastically from 1999 to 2003.

By 2004, Egypt was releasing some 50 movies per year on average compared to the 20 movies that were hitting the screens at the end of the nineties.

And while "clean" movies helped revive a depressed film scene in Egypt, it was precisely because of this revival that the real competition has shaped up.

Reel cinema

Movies with powerful themes are again in the vanguard in Egypt despite their “hot scenes," including acclaimed films like Al-Waed (The Promise), Hiya Fawda (The Chaos) and Jounaynat al-Asmak (The Fish Garden).

Adel Imam himself plays a lead role in the 2006 film The Yacoubian Building which was a "scathing portrayal of modern Egyptian society."

The film was reputed to be the most expensive in Egyptian cinema, and was Egypt's official submission into the 79th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.

Domestically it was wildly successful despite having received the "Adults Only" seal by Egypt's board of censors.

But the industry is a fickle one and there are a whole slew of new "video clip" directors who are featuring Arabic pop singers in movies - often transposing familiar scenes in music videos and adding spicy content to boost sales of otherwise mundane story lines.

Egyptian film critic Hussain Bayoumy Hassan said that filmmakers are battling for limited state funds, and profit motive is forcing good directors to veer from their normal fare.

Industry insiders say the debate spurned on by profit motive is forcing filmmakers into new creative ground, because it encourages producers to present "more" to their audiences.

Hani Gerges Fawzi was one of the first filmmakers to combine sex with a creative story line. 

His film Bidoun Rakaba (No Censorship) presents the sexual issues young women and men are experiencing after having left their parents’ homes.
Of course, with a title like "No Censorship" and a sexy plot line that was clearly leaked to movie goers, the film quickly was fodder for a media frenzy.

Ola Ghanem, who plays a lesbian in the movie, has given over 40 interviews in the past three weeks about the film's "racy" content.

She said less controversial films she has starred in, such as “Lahazat Ounoutha” (Moments of Femininity), failed to attract such large audiences. 

Rim Hilal, who plays the sexy dancer in No Censorship, said she was "discovered" by the media after the film was released, despite being in another critically acclaimed film called “Banat and Motocyclat” (Girls and Motorcycles).
Censorship sells

Whether it’s in the title or not, censorship remains the best way to promote films in Egypt, and its a technique that precedes the current "hot or not" debate.

Producers have been known to leak news about upcoming films to Egypt's censorship board, in effect delaying its release "due to issues of censorship" while the board deliberates.

It's a sure-fire way of drawing more attention to a film, as was the case with “Azmat Sharaf” (Honor Matter) featuring singers Ahmad Fahmi and Ghada Abdul Razzak.

The film's director Walid al-Tabi helped to orchestrate a media frenzy around the film because he said the movie was being censored.

Critics note that one of the lead actors, Ahmad Fehmi, received more attention from the "censored" film than he did during his five-year singing career.

What is clear is the state of Egyptian cinema is healthy compared to years past.

What is not clear is whether cheap gimmicks will dismantle the serious cinema traditions in Egypt that have always set it apart from the rest of Arabic film.

Parts of this article were translated from the Arabic article published in the Lebanese Daily Al-Akhbar.
To read the original click here.