Filmmaker Amr Salama tells Sarah Murad s about his recent, much talked about problems with the censor, which she checks against the testimony of the officials involved
In the supposedly new Egypt that emerged following 25 January, freedom of expression is still subject to oppression. Film director Amr Salama, for one relatively conservative artist, is facing a dilemma regarding his film project La Mu'akhza (Pardon Me), which was turned down several times by the Egyptian censor. He was finally given a promise from both the minister of culture and the head of the censorship bureau that it will be accepted this time, but nothing official has been said.
According to Salama, the film tells the story of a young man who has attended private schools all his life and, for reasons to be known in the film, is now forced to attend a public school. Because his social class is different from those who go to school with him, he is bullied by his classmates, and doesn't reveal his Christian identity in fear of being bullied more aggressively. His name, Hany Abdulla, resulted in the teachers confusing him with a Muslim student. He spends the year pretending to be a Muslim, until Òê" in the end Òê" his true religion is revealed by everyone. This time he isn't bullied; on the contrary, he is treated too nicely for fear of sectarian tension: another form of discrimination.
Salama submitted the script to the censors as the law requires in 2009; they turned it down, insisting on their decision even after he filed an appeal. They justified their refusal to let the film be made by saying there is no sectarianism in Egypt as the film claims. Afterwards, Salama was busy working on his second feature film, Asmaa, but in 2011, after 25 January, he resubmitted the film. "Though I had hopes that after the revolution things would change," he says, "it was turned down again." This year, Salama submitted his film to Ministry of Culture, hoping to earn the ministry's production grant. "It was not a requirement to have the censorship bureau's approval," he explains. He earned the grant. Salama explains that he thought this would be a good chance for the film to be finally accepted by censors. "I talked to head of Censorship Authority Sayed Khattab and he asked me to resubmit the film under a different name Òê" for administrative reasons. I was shocked to find out it was turned down yet again only a couple of weeks ago."
On the same day, Salama appeared in a CBC television show during which Khattab made a telephone intervention. Salama asked Khattab whether, if he changed the religion of the main character, the film would finally be passed by the censors. Khattab said yes. After the show was over Salama regretted saying this and announced that he would not give up his right to express his views in his own way in the film, or play tricks and lie to the public and the censors. Deciding to be honest about his intentions, Salama met with Saber Arab, the Minister of Culture, with Khattab, and they promised him that that next time he submits the film, it will be accepted. "I am currently waiting for this to happen" he says. "I believe that basically there are no rational reasons for turning down the film. They just believe it could bring about trouble due to the sensitivity of the subject, that it's about religion."
He went on to say that, according to the censors themselves, it would be a torment for the soul to watch a child on screen denying his own religion. "This is an assumption made by the censors," he says, "who have no right to decide for every viewer whether something is tormenting or not." Another argument is that the film claims that there is religious sectarianism in Egypt, which is supposedly not true. Salama says he did not make a film about the Maspero massacre that occurred on 9-10 October 2011 or the displacement of Copts in four major incidents, or the seven churches attacked in the last year and a half alone. "It is microscopic compared to what happens in reality." Finally, the censors argue that the film distorts the mage of education in Egypt; Salama explained that anything regarding education in the film is based on true stories and incidents that he has actually seen or experienced in schools in Egypt.
Salama said that if the film is turned down this time, he will have to file an appeal in court. "I don't know what else I can do in that case; however, I believe the problem will then grow from a personal matter regarding a film to the whole issue of censorship in Egypt and how creative people must take the censor into account before and during producing their art Òê" a disaster." Salama adds that there should really be a stand regarding censorship and what censors should be allowed and not allowed to meddle into, and that it is impossible to make creativity dependent on such a regulatory system in the whole country. "This deeply threatens the future of freedom of speech and expression."
For his part Khattab says it is illegal for grants of the Ministry of Culture to be given to films not approved or even submitted to the censors. "They should be accepted by censorship first," Khattab said, adding, "When Salama's film was resubmitted under the title Tanya I'dadi (Prep Two), no changes had been made." Khattab says the film is currently in the hands of the censors who will give their final word on it. Even though the main issue which is the religion of the film's main character has not been changed in the recently submitted script, Khattab does not give a final word on whether or not the film will pass.