15 - 21 July 1999
Issue No. 438
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Ali Abu Shadi:
The blade and the inkProfile by Nadia Abou Al-Magd
He is the censor. He is a critic. He is the censor now, but always a critic at heart. This is how he perceives himself, and survives
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Profile Features Travel Sports Time Out Chronicles People Cartoons Letters
"I've been here for three years, but I feel as though it were yesterday," says Abu Shadi with a smile. Does this mean he is happier holding the censor's scissors than the critic's pen? He doesn't give a straight answer but, no matter how much he talks about and justifies his job as the censor, his passion for criticism remains overwhelming.
His spacious office is on the third floor of an old building affiliated with the Opera. Behind him hang a big poster from Tango and a portrait of Naguib Mahfouz. He likes the movie and the novelist.
Naguib Mahfouz's novels were among the books he had to hide from his father. Not that his father had anything against Mahfouz or reading; he was just worried that Ali would lose his eyesight from too much reading, like him. When he discovered the hiding place of his son's books, magazines and newspapers, he burned them. This, however, did nothing to extinguish Ali's fondness for reading -- anything at all. "Any printed material was my closest friend," Abu Shadi, today 52, recounts.
Abu Shadi kept another secret from his father: Going to the cinema. "If I had told him, it would have been another catastrophe." But young Ali's diary fell into his father's hands on New Year's Eve 1959. He received a severe beating.
Why the harsh treatment? Abu Shadi explains that his father wanted him to save his sight to become a doctor, maybe even an ophthalmologist. He died a year later. The lesson Abu Shadi learnt from this brand of tough love was to show his children consideration and to treat them in a democratic fashion.
Abu Shadi never made it to the Faculty of Medicine. Not that he had wanted to -- he was very happy in the Arabic Department of Cairo University's Faculty of Arts. What he learned there helped him develop his writing skills. That was back in the '60s, when writing was "the most important thing in life".
After graduation in 1966, Abu Shadi joined the Ministry of Culture and wrote several books, among them Documentary Cinema in the '70s, Classics of Egyptian Cinema, Black and White, The Language of Cinema, 100 Years of Egyptian Cinema and Cinema and Politics.
He received a diploma in art criticism 1975, and since then has made a name for himself as an enlightened critic.
Abu Shadi was offered the post of head censor in 1988, but he turned it down. When he was offered the job again in August 1996, he was reluctant, but finally took it. Why did he reject it then, only to accept it later? "I'm happy I accepted the post now and not 11 years ago, because in the meantime I achieved a lot of things on the artistic level. I read a lot about censorship and finished a long study about censorship and its relation to extremism. My hesitation was mainly due to the question of how I could work out a compromise between censorship and creativity, or, more specifically, between censorship and criticism."
In his study, entitled "The Impact of Extremism on Cinema and Television Censorship", Abu Shadi wrote that creative artists are subject to suppression by a wide variety of institutions: the artistic censorship department, the television censorship department, the national security apparatus, the Interior Ministry and Al-Azhar. He concluded that "censorship contributes, by fear, caution, sympathy and involvement, to imposing extremist concepts on the hearts and minds of many. It will take a long time to eliminate this influence." He was offered the job shortly after his study was published. "Maybe they wanted to punish me," he says with a laugh. Abu Shadi has a sense of humor that makes it very difficult to imagine him not joking or laughing, even when he is talking about serious issues.
"I accepted this job as a duty. I'm one of the people who criticised censorship the most, but I never said it should be abolished. I'm a public servant, I have worked for the state since 1968. I believe that government work is a public role. If every one of us excelled at the job he performs, I think Egypt would be different place. My feeling is that I'm playing my role in different places."
For Abu Shadi, censorship is a by-product of society, and the censor's job remains necessary until society is mature enough to replace state censorship by popular censorship. "Censorship is like marriage -- and, sometimes, divorce: an inevitable evil," he says with a wide smile.
Obviously, Abu Shadi believes that Egyptian society is not ready yet, so the existing censorship law, with all its shortcomings, should not be modified. "We are in a country were there is severe conceptual confusion. The conservative atmosphere enforced by the fundamentalists still predominates." He admits that he himself was influenced by that atmosphere. A few months before beginning his job as chief censor, "I was watching Kashf Al-Mastour, and I caught myself wondering about a scene at the beginning of the movie, in which the heroine was wearing a bathing suit. I wasn't sure whether or not it should be shown.
When he assumed his job, several "battles" erupted with those he refers to as extremists. "From day one, my policy has been that I don't say what I'm going to do. I just do what I want." Abu Shadi will not say more, because he doesn't want to give the "extremists what they want most: publicity."
But the battles are well known. Last year, for instance, a group of lawyers filed a case with the prosecutor-general against Abu Shadi for giving the go-ahead to the filming of a movie called Nudity (later changed to Night Talk), directed by Inas El-Deghidi. The lawyers based their case on an interview Abu Shadi had given, in which he said: "Censorship can allow things that happen in life... Why don't we train ourselves to face those things without fear or undue sensitivity?" The lawyers didn't see the movie, which wasn't finished when they took Abu Shadi to court.
"The problem is that all those who were involved in such battles with the censor's office never saw the movies they are complaining about," he says in exasperation. Abu Shadi is pleased, however, that the censor's main problem is no longer how to suppress creativity and muzzle artists. On the contrary, he believes the censor and the artists form a coalition against "outsiders who are trying to suppress creativity".
Last year, there was also the Devil's Advocate controversy. There was a great hue and cry over the movie's alleged blasphemous tone, and the matter was taken straight to the People's Assembly. One headline in the opposition daily Al-Ahrar blazed: "The American Devil's Advocate insults God in the country of Al-Azhar".
'I accepted this job as a duty. I'm one of the people who criticised censorship the most, but I never said it should be abolished. I'm a public servant, I have worked for the state since 1968. I believe that government work is a public role. If every one of us excelled at the job he performs, I think Egypt would be different place. My feeling is that I'm playing my role in different places'
"What really made me very bitter was that this was a false accusation by people who hadn't seen the movie, but were making a lot of noise. I felt I was fighting this battle alone." Abu Shadi, therefore, has had to become philosophical. "Everything passes. Wounds heal with time, so I have to be patient until they do. Battles too take their time. One has to be courageous and true to oneself, that's all. Naguib Mahfouz has said that the consequences of bravery are much easier to deal with than those of cowardliness."
Part of his daily struggle is due to the fact that he is unable to "make a clear difference between creativity and censorship. My problem is that my life, my hobby, my profession, my friends are all the same. Sometimes this is a blessing, sometimes a curse."
After the row over Devil's Advocate, he has been reluctant to show two controversial movies: Meet Joe Black and City of Angels. He recently referred them to a high censorship committee, composed of 15 members from the censorship department and four critics and journalists. They have not yet decided whether or not the films can be shown. Nor is Abu Shadi sure of another controversial movie, The Prince of Egypt, which he has not yet seen. The film, an animated interpretation of the story of the Exodus, was criticised by many intellectuals here for distorting Ancient Egyptian history. He is determined to wait and see: "When I get a copy, I'll invite intellectuals to help me make my decision."
Abu Shadi is convinced that art is "higher than censorship, and more immortal". He has therefore suggested that the original copies of the movies he has censored should be saved, uncut, in the archives of the National Cinema Centre. After all, he muses, "things that are censored now might be allowed in the future."
This could seem unlikely, however, since, as he notes, movies that were considered appropriate viewing in the late '60s and early '70s, like Hammam Al-Malatili ( a film that includes an explicit discussion of homosexuality), would not pass the censor's office unscathed today. "Egypt then was different -- less conservative," he concedes.
We turn to the topic of this year's Cannes Film Festival, and Abu Shadi brightens considerably. His eyes begin to sparkle with enthusiasm as he plunges into his favorite subject: "For a critic, there is no greater pleasure than watching a good movie." He happily recounts the plot of some of his favourites from this year's crop, then stops abruptly: "Sometimes I forget, and act as a critic. Why are you reminding me of all of this?" he laughs.
Abu Shadi has brought together the apparently irreconcilable fragments of his personality -- his passion for art and cinema, and his job as censor -- with little conflict, it seems. "I am the censor sometimes, but always a critic," he says tranquilly. "As Ali Abu Shadi, I might accept things that censorship laws reject. As a critic, I advocate infinite freedom, but as a censor I have to apply the law."
As such he refuses to give the green light to movies containing racist stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, like True Lies. Here, however, he refuses to bow to convention. "This accusation of tarnishing Egypt's image, for instance, has become very elastic. Sometimes I don't know what it means. Do we have no flaws or defects? Isn't it better to try to find a solution. Yes, we have beggars and donkey carts roaming the streets; does filming them tarnish Egypt's image?"
What about Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg's controversial Oscar winner? It was banned by Hamdi Surour, one of Abu Shadi's predecessors, and has been compared with Prince of Egypt.
"The problem of this film is that it is merely a vehicle for Zionist propaganda, especially at the end, where migration to Palestine is portrayed as inevitable. This is against my beliefs, and against our beliefs as Arabs. I could show it at the film festival, but I would not agree to give it a public screening. I would not want to give films like this legitimacy."
Has not the age of the Internet, satellite dishes and clandestine videos made his role as censor redundant? "One million people in Egypt have access to this technology; over 60 million people don't."
Ali Abu Shadi doesn't go to his office before noon and he works until after midnight. "I was never a morning person, even when I started working in 1968. All I need is six hours of sleep." Sometimes, he must get less. Watching films is the tip of the iceberg for the censor. Less interesting bureaucratic work involves supervising nightclubs, imported computer software, screening songs, etc. He doesn't like most of the songs he hears, but then the censor applies laws, not his taste.
This week, he has been busy on the panel of judges at the Fifth Cairo Radio and Television Festival. He will preside over the National Festival for Feature Films at the end of this month. "I'm looking forward to the event this year, because this is what I like to do. Film festivals enable me to go on." This year's film festival will honor veteran director Tawfiq Saleh, actress Samira Ahmed, editor Rashida Abdel-Salam and documentary film director Ali El-Ghazouli.
Where does his family fit, in this busy world of criticism and censorship? "I got married a long time ago, I don't remember the year. Marriage is destiny. Women are life; men are weak, and have played a secondary role since Adam. I applied this from the very beginning. My wife is in control of the household. I have neither the ability nor the time. I'm not a home person. My wife leaves me to do the things I like, and puts up with me. But I also put up with her: she has quite a short temper." When he has time, Abu Shadi likes to spend it alone, in Sayeda Zeinab, where he grew up. He still has a flat there. Well, he is not quite alone: the flat also houses more than 7,000 books.
How does he feel after three years in the censor's office? On the whole, he is happy that he has achieved some of his goals, like reshaping the institutions that traditionally led censorship to suppress creativity, and forging a cooperative relationship with artists. Still, it is just a job at the end of the day. "I'm in transit. I do my job properly, I listen to my conscience and do my duty towards this nation. I would rather be done with censorship today, but it's not that easy. I'm tired: that's why I escape to film festivals, to feel that I am still myself. Recently I spent three weeks in Cannes and London, I went to the theatre. I enjoyed myself very much and did all the things I miss doing here."
After talking with Ali Abu Shadi, it is almost impossible to imagine him wielding the censor's scissors with anything but reluctance, ambivalence or distaste. Somehow, one feels that he has never put his critic's pen down.
(photo: Randa Shaath)