In Egypt, it's the non-revolution films that speak volumes
It's hard enough for a director to react to global political events. Anticipating them? It might be easier to predict Tim Tebow's career arc.
But as violence engulfs Cairo for a fourth straight day -- with at least 10 protesters killed in clashes with the military near Tahrir Square in this charged city -- two feature-film directors are dealing with their unlikely role as a sort of Mideastern political seer.
Maybe most striking is that neither of them made a movie about politics.
Amr Salama's "Asmaa," which is currently playing in Egyptian theaters, tackles the stigma of HIV, while Mohamed Diab's "Cairo 678," which played here earlier this year, looks at the unspoken epidemic of sexual harassment.
If neither seems the stuff of taboo-busting drama, consider that Egypt didn't even have a law against sexual harassment until 2008. AIDS is discussed even less.
"Mohamed and I both wanted to make movies about the fear of speaking out, and overcoming that fear. I think people after the revolution are reacting to that," Salama said over breakfast over the weekend.
Diab echoed the thought, and added that the message was even more timely as protesters continued to come under fire from the military. "The idea of a character who feels powerless couldn't be more relevant," he said.
Based on a true story, "Asmaa" tells of an HIV-positive woman who is told she can receive a life-saving medical treatment only if she reveals how she contracted the disease. She refuses, but on moral grounds, not because she has anything to hide. As she holds her ground in the face of repressive religious conservatives and other forces, her story heads to a noble but tragic conclusion.
The movie has generated an enthusiastic reaction in theaters; at a packed weekday afternoon showing at a downtown Cairo multiplex last week, the film received a loud ovation.
It also has elicited a backlash, including the claim that the protester-activist filmmaker is trying to cash in on the revolution, as well as the bizarre charge that the Muslim Brotherhood is behind the film. (The main character is a religious woman who wears a head scarf.)
Diab, a well-known Egyptian screenwriter who makes his directorial debut with "Cairo 678," also tackles a sex-related stigma. His movie is a fictional tale about several women who come forth with allegations about sexual harassment. (The title is a reference to the number of a bus where one of the women is assaulted.)
The film, which like "Asmaa" does not have distribution in the U.S., has been making the international-festival rounds in recent months, where it's received strong reviews. The Hollywood Reporter called it a "powerful portrait of three women of varying social backgrounds ... [that] sheds important light on a rarely depicted subject."
But "678" has generated controversy in conservative-minded Egypt. Three separate lawsuits were filed before the movie even opened, and some Egyptian politicians and pundits criticized Diab for his choice of subject.
"Their attitude was, 'Egypt doesn't have a sexual harassment problem. And even if we do have a problem, why are you telling the world about it?' " Diab said.
The movie was deemed significant enough by the world community to garner a special screening at the U.N. General Assembly earlier this year. Delegates from every Arab nation supported the screening, with one exception -- Egypt.
Salama and Diab, who are good friends, said in separate interviews that they had never had any intention of making revolution films; in fact, the 30-something filmmakers couldn't have even known the revolution was coming. "678" opened in Egypt a month before the uprising began Jan. 25. Salama finished editing "Asmaa" on Jan. 24.
Yet they wonder if the same spirit that captivated protesters and led to the uprising also influenced them. "I guess we both made a movie about the revolution without realizing we were making a film about the revolution," Diab said. Added Salama: "It was in all of us before a single person entered Tahrir."
Maybe more important, by making films about topics that aren't overtly political, the filmmakers were able to slip under the radar of the country's powerful censorship board, which remains in place even after the fall of former leader Hosni Mubarak. (A different Salama project, about the divide between Muslims and Christians, for instance, has been rejected in recent months, just as it was before the revolution.)
The notion of films that speak to political and social realities -- and these two movies are hardly the only ones; others, such as Ibrahim Batout's "Hawi," also deal with people imprisoned in various ways -- is crucial as the nation of 85 million people faces its next tumultuous chapter.
The revolution that toppled Mubarak suggested a new era of openness. But the reality has been more complicated, not to mention bloody. Many protesters say little has changed under the transitional military leadership, and are demanding that the armed forces turn over control to a civilian government. That has led to violent clashes with the police and the military—and heightened the urgency for filmmakers, especially in a country where the line between artist and activist is virtually non-existent.
Indeed, Salama and Diab are also organizers and stars of the revolution. Each appear frequently on television portraying its tenets, and Diab has even served as a kind of interlocutor between the protester community and many of the country's actor and musician celebrities, who for years supported the Mubarak regime.
Judged by the all-important Egyptian-revolution metric of Twitter followers, the pair of filmmakers are solidly A-List (Diab is at 45,000 and Salama at 90,000). So well-known are they that during a lunch Diab with a reporter this weekend, an apparent regime supporter complained to a waiter that the restaurant was allowing "rebels" to talk to journalists.
Although they say that creating art isn't easy when there are protests to organize and social-media tools to be harnessed, Diab and Salama are working on new films. (Salama also co-directed the recent Toronto Film Festival documentary : "Tahrir 2011"),
But as they do, they may be better off developing movies that are more covert in their political aims. "People here are tired of seeing images of revolution," Diab said, noting that the few theatrical films that have taken on the revolution have failed commercially. "They don't want to watch protests anymore. They don't want to see people getting tear gassed. To tell you the truth, I'm a little tired of it too."
The best way to make a movie about the revolution, in other words, is not to make it about the revolution.
-- Steven Zeitchik in Cairo
Photo: An image from "Cairo 678." Credit: Fortissimmo Films