Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 July 2004
Issue No. 699
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

They don't love this movie

The movie Bahib Al-Sima (I Love Cinema) has provoked outrage amongst Egypt's Copts. Yasmine El-Rashidi reports

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In its sixth week in local theatres, the Egyptian movie Bahib Al-Sima (I Love Cinema) has created much debate in local press, and sent dozens of Copts into the streets in protest against what they have described as both a demeaning portrayal and a ridiculing of Christian doctrines.

Over 100 Copts demonstrated in Cairo's main cathedral last Wednesday demanding that the film be removed from theatres and that the production crew be tried in court for contempt of religion. Eleven priests, a Coptic lawyer and reportedly one Muslim lawyer have filed a lawsuit against the film, calling for its banning, and demanding that in the future the church be granted the right to pre-screen such movies.

The film was screened before a predominantly Christian gathering of intellectuals and academics prior to going through the Egyptian Censorship Board. The event instigated the ensuing harsh reaction within church circles, enraged by what they felt was a blatant disregard for their opinion. Following the screening, a few potentially controversial scenes were cut out.

The film, directed by Osama Fawzi, produced by his brother Hani Guirgis Fawzi and written by Hani Fawzi (no relation) , seeks to criticise all forms of oppression. Narrator Naiim, in his 40s, tells of his childhood in 1966 in the Cairo district of Shubra, speaking of his relationship with his father, his mother's disappointments, and his love for the cinema -- his breathing space amidst a stifling family atmosphere.

Naiim's fascination with the silver screen, however, is discouraged by his conservative Christian father whose blind faith overpowers his thoughts, in consequence deeming his son's movie-making dream a blasphemous desire. In a family portrayal that intertwines politics, social grooming, desire, and the turmoil of love, hate and fear, the film shares the metamorphosing ideas and worlds that captivate the attention of a child. The dynamic of the father and God is paralled in that of Naiim and his struggle between desire and fear.

But what the director says was intended to be an artistic work, the moral of which is that piety does not mean to oppress others, has been received by the country's religious minority as disdainful and damaging.

"We are not against freedom but it should not be against the doctrine. This movie mocks the Christian doctrine," Morcos Aziz, the Coptic lawyer filing the suit, said with reference to Naiim's questioning of the doctrine of salvation.

Aziz also pointed to a scene of a woman beating the local priest on the head with her slipper and of a couple kissing in the church, saying they portray Christians as "morally corrupt", and will make Muslims avoid them. Christians comprise 10 per cent of Egypt's 70 million population.

In a nation whose film history has seldom cast Coptic families or characters in leading roles, this work is a first. But life's ironies have impelled that this groundbreaking reality be overshadowed by the religious controversy that has erupted.

"It's about many things," director Fawzi told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Copts aren't used to seeing themselves on the screen, and are assuming that because this particular family was portrayed in a certain light in the film, then we are saying that all Copts are like this family. You can't look at things that way."

The country's religious minority has long alleged discrimination, and as with the region as a whole -- indeed any minority -- sensitivities remained heightened.

"Clearly the issue is much greater than that of this film," Fawzi says. "It's about boundaries and perception and social norms and the extremism and sectarian thought we see strengthening in the country. And in the case of Copts, there is maybe an element of an automatic defence reaction which is natural for any minority."

Fawzi points out that in actuality, few of those bashing the production have actually seen it. "It started with one person, Aziz Morcos, lobbying against it and writing about it, and that stirred people up," he explains. "Based on his interpretation, which in my opinion was very twisted, people got worked up. It's like how a rumour starts," Fawzi offers. "One person says something, and it spreads and changes and becomes the talk of the town. It's an unfortunate reality."

The director urged that people look beyond the film itself and reflect on the implications of the current fluster and the clear prevailing sectarian thought. "When you present a production you're not attempting to generalise and you're not attempting to reflect society," he says. "The aim is drama, is creativity. And you have to look at the larger context of the work. You can't take a piece of writing and focus on one word. You have to look at its place in the sentence, and the paragraph, and then the chapter and complete work. What is happening now, people having exited the realm of the film itself, is very dangerous."

Despite public statements that the production is a message against any form of extremism, critics have slammed Fawzi for his conversion to Islam, saying he has abandoned his roots and adopted a staunchly anti-Christian stance.

"For a start, conversion does not mean one becomes extreme in a chosen religion," Fawzi responds. "It doesn't mean one feels resentment to the other party. It doesn't even need to mean conversion out of faith. Unfortunately, talk about the film has changed to this sectarian dialogue, and the film has not received its due credit and critique artistically."

The result is one which has been seen numerous times in recent years: an artist who is essentially criminalised.

"I feel like someone accused of some great crime and having to defend myself constantly," he says. "If people would take the time to watch the film without preconceived ideas, they will see it in its intended context, and will realise that it's not anti-anything. Except extremism, of course."

"What we are witnessing now reflects a worrying aggression and single- mindedness. And it reflects an ignorance, an inability to look at creation, at art, for what it is, which is simply a figment of the creator's imagination, through the combination of both fiction and fact, with no intention other than to share and provoke thought."

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