By Alexandra Kinias
Article published in Kalimat magazine. Click to view
Two years ago Egyptian American director and screenplay writer Hesham Issawi approached me to collaborate in writing a screenplay about a forbidden love affair between a Coptic woman and her Muslim lover. We set gear to work together with the emphasis to expose the hardships the young couple, who lived in the slums of Cairo encountered in their daily lives. The challenges they faced escalated after the girl got pregnant. To salvage their love and have a better future the couple had to leave the country. With Europe as their destination, they made their exit after paying the smugglers to take them by boat to the other shore; thus the movie title ‘Cairo Exit’ was born. The storyline of Cairo Exit was truthful to the lives of millions of unemployed underprivileged young Egyptians who survive in continuous chaotic clutter as they struggle to make ends meet with nothing but ghosts of a bleak future to look forward to.
The poignant journey of exploring the fictional lives of the couple and writing about it was culminated with a joyful crescendo when a producer acknowledged our efforts and stepped on board. The selection of cast and crew commenced and the director of photography Patrik Thelander who flew in from L.A. was already checking the shooting locations. Not before too long the festive climax was transformed into a nightmare. The preparations for shooting froze as the censorship bureau denied approving the screenplay on the basis that the religious faith of the young woman should be changed to Islam. The interfaith relationship between the characters became the major obstacle to produce the movie.
On its journey from birth to screen, Egyptian movies require triple permits before they see the light. The screenplay must first be approved before a shooting permit is issued. Before the movie is shot, the censorship bureau can demand the removal of scenes, tamper with the story or even change the title as happened with Cairo Exit which its initial title was Egypt Exit. Unless producers comply with such requirements, movies will forever remain on paper. Once a movie is shot, a screening permission must be granted. And as a final reminder of who has the upper hand, the bureau reserves the right to revoke the screening permit at any time and for any reason.
Refusing to comply with the requirements to change the faith of the female character, the screenplay Cairo Exit was not approved. In lieu of shooting permits, the movie was shot underground since carrying a film camera on the street of Cairo without a permit is a felony. In spite of the games of hide and seek played between the movie crew and policemen, in civilian clothes roaming the streets, the shooting was completed.
The first censorship law in Egypt was drafted on November 26, 1881 as a reaction to Ahmed Orabi’s revolution against the British occupation. To curb the freedom of press after nationalistic newspapers in support of the revolution flooded the market, control over the media was born. An amendment to the law was made in 1904 that included censorship over movies and theatrical performances. Prior to that date, movies that were screened in Egypt, since 1896, and theatrical performances were under the direct control and discretion of the police chief.
Against the belief of the masses, the censorship bureau was not essentially created to protect family values, but its objective was primary political to safeguard the government and its leaders. Unfortunately, nothing has changed since then. However, with the religious surge in Egypt, those who proclaimed themselves as custodians of morality rode the wave to benefit from the censorship that has assisted them in spreading their ideologies.
To silence the voices and switch off the brains of the people, censorship becomes essential for the existence of totalitarian regimes. With adding a tint of religious and family values to its objectives, no one dares to dispute its motives. It comes as no surprise that movie censorship thrived under the reign of Mubarak’s corrupt regime.
To safeguard moral and family values, countries worldwide have instituted the rating system whose purpose is to alert viewing audiences of the contents which maybe objectionable to some. However, banning movies, to stop people from watching them is a common practice of totalitarian control. It is an insult to assume that people are unable to think for themselves and thus need the guidance from decision makers to tell them what they should watch, or how they should think and behave.
As in other countries, Egypt also has its own inconvenient truths embedded in the society such as female genital mutilation, sex out of wedlock, women who turn to prostitution for a living or interfaith relationships. Banning movies that discuss such issues on the basis that they defame the society is a form of mental manipulation as denial of an existing problem is a delusional approach to solve it. On the contrary such important social issues require people’s awareness rather than wishing them away. Only when addressed, then they may be resolved.
In addition to that, the ban of movies or books resulted in restricting creativity which unfortunately doesn’t come with an operating manual with guidelines to follow. Over the years, censorship has achieved nothing but an overall decline of talents.
It is ironic to see the books that were published in Egypt in the early twentieth century are being banned in the twenty first century. No wonder that when the dispels of the cultural renaissance of the twenties and thirties in Egypt, like Abbas Mahmoud Al- Akkad and Nagub Mahfouz, two of Egypt’s notable writers, took responsibility of the censorship bureau, Egypt’s cinema witnessed its golden age. The set back of the Egyptian movie industry happened with the revolution of 1952 when the industry was nationalized and censorship escalated to protect the revolution.
Today’s censorship officials in Egypt are the sons of the era that witnessed the cultural decline. Their qualifications are not important anymore because the job description nor longer requires creativity and talent, but total submission to the regime’s doctrine. In a conversation with Hesham Issawi about why a movie like Yacoubian Building, would be given a green light, while others with less controversial issues don’t, he stated, “The movie [Yacoubian Building] looked like an antigovernment, but in reality it was very much what dictators do; [they] allow certain films that might look like they are critical of the government, to show they have a free society. But in fact the movie promoted their system.”
In spite of the difficulties Cairo Exit witnessed prior and while the cameras were rolling, and with the ban on screening it is still effective in Egypt, the movie won international recognition. It premiered in Dubai Film festival, won best non-European Film award in the Independent European Film festival, and received positive acknowledgments in the Tribeca festival in NY, Festival Cinema Arabe in The Netherlands and Toronto International Film Festival.