Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A passion awakened

A film on the life of Jesus Christ is causing uproar, writes Hani Mustafa

Click to view caption
A still from Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ

In April 2004, following its premiere in Egypt, The Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson, acquired nearly cult status as a controversial take on a sensitive topic; it was widely sold on pirated CDs for LE10. When the censors passed the film, the local industry-makers were encouraged to emulate their American counterparts.

Yet, even before the script was written, filmmaker-censor feuds took the film scene by storm.

"I went to the censorship authority to obtain approval," recounts film writer Fayez Ghali, who had been commissioned by producers Mohamed Ashoub and Samir Sabri to write the life of Jesus. "At that time, Ali Abu Shadi was undergoing a heart surgery. Gaber Asfour, director of the Higher Council for Culture, presented the script to the church, asking its opinion."

Soon Pope Shenouda's advisory opinion decreed that no Egyptian should play the role of Jesus; later Bishop Basanti of Helwan elaborated, "we make films about prophets and saints to be shown within the church only or on video, but we live with our brothers the Muslims and they do not approve of presenting holy characters on the screen or in pictures and we understand their point of view."

This took the issue even further out of the censorial context, with Al-Azhar scholars expressing their disagreement with the concept of the film. According to Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi, a member of the Islamic research committee at Al-Azhar, however, "Al-Azhar does not impose its opinion; people consult with it. But we were not asked for our opinion and we were not presented with the script. I believe the script has not been written yet. All I spoke about was the general rule that we do not approve of the portrayal of prophets and their disciples, including Jesus." Bayoumi did not know whether Al-Azhar had been consulted on The Passion of The Christ, "I was not there when it was screened. But the censorship authority is free to accept or reject the opinion that Al-Azhar presents to it."

Yet Ghali, maintaining that he is presenting a film on Christ from a Christian perspective, believes Al-Azhar should not be consulted, "does it make sense to consult the church if Muslims were working on a film about Prophet Mohamed?"

If produced, this film will be the first Arab film about Christ in an Arab country. Yet, to live up to expectations, it requires an enormous budget. "Every film about Jesus was produced in the West," Ghali explains. "We want to make an Egyptian film about the Aramaic Christ who came from the East. The estimated budget is LE50 million, in order for the film to be of international standards."

If the censors concur with Egypt's two religious establishments, the filmmakers will have no option but to produce the film abroad -- something that would multiply costs with no guarantee of a proportionate turnaround. All of which remains to be seen.

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