Provocative 'Yacoubian' Film Opens in Cairo

The movie version of the controversial book The Yacoubian Building premiered this week in Cairo. The all-star production, the most expensive film ever in Egypt, touches on topics that are often taboo, such as Islamic extremism and homosexuality. It's opening at a time when the Egyptian government is taking a hard line on most expressions of dissent.

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In Egypt this week, audiences in Cairo are getting their first look at a long awaited, controversial movie. The movie is called The Yacoubian Building and it deals bluntly with issues that have not been seen before in Egyptian movie screens, homosexuality, the roots of terrorism and corruption reaching to the highest levels of government.

As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, the film is opening at a time when the Egyptian regime is cracking down on political dissent.

(Soundbite of The Yacoubian Building)

PETER KENYON reporting:

On a warm, late spring evening in Cairo, the searchlights are stabbing at the sky and the vaguely oriental score from The Yacoubian Building washes over a crowd of photographers as Egyptian megastars Adel Imam and Youssra stroll down the red carpet. Standing nearby, one of the film's producers, Samat Guran(ph), nervously waits for the projectors to roll.

Mr. SAMAT GURAN (Producer, The Yacoubian Building): Feel scared, but I just can't wait to see the reaction. We're just being blunt about it. So I expect a lot of waves to happen, but I think it is positive. We need these waves.

KENYON: The movie is a sprawling tale of modern Cairo, told through the lives of the residents of the faded, elegant Yacoubian Building. Once a home to cabinet ministers and millionaires, but by the 1990s, featuring a cheap clothing store at street level, middle-class professionals in the apartments above and desperately poor families squeezed into huts on the roof.

Some Egyptians say it's shocking that a government that banned the gay western Brokeback Mountain would allow an Egyptian film to feature a gay love story in which a newspaper editor seduces a married policeman. But even more shocking to others is the stark portrayal of a corrupt and vicious government that critics say bears an unmistakable likeness to the current Egyptian regime.

(Soundbite of The Yacoubian Building)

KENYON: In this scene, a young man named Taha who scored brilliantly on his exams and dreams of becoming a policeman is rejected by the academy because his father is a lowly doorman at the Yacoubian Building. In his despair, he becomes more religious. But when he leads a demonstration at the university, he's arrested, tortured and sodomized by the security forces. The experience turns him into a terrorist, one who has no allegiance to fundamentalist Islam, that only wants to kill the authorities who brutalized him.

The author of the bestselling novel on which the movie is based, Dr. Alaa Al Aswany, sits in his downtown medical office and recalls how that fictional storyline was echoed in real life not long after the book came out. He says a young man achieved top marks at university in political science and applied to the Foreign Ministry.

Dr. ALAA AL ASWANY (Author of The Yacoubian Building): And he was refused. An official report - they wrote in the report that we cannot afford him the job because he came from a poor social background. And that was very traumatic to the young man. So he committed suicide and everybody in Egypt knows this drama.

KENYON: Dr. Aswany keeps his dental practice, he says, for the raw material it provides his writing and because it's impossible to earn a living as a writer in a country that publishes so few books.

This film is being released at a time when opposition figures, judges and journalists in Egypt are being arrested and jailed in growing numbers. The public pressure from the Bush administration for President Hosni Mubarak to open up Egyptian society has faded as speculation builds that Mubarak will hand over power to his son, despite official denials.

Aswany says the release of The Yacoubian Building is probably not a sign the government is loosening its grip. He sees it as a kind of political safety valve, a way for Egyptians to vent their anger without threatening the regime.

(Soundbite of post-screening crowd)

KENYON: As the VIP crowd filtered out of the movie premiere, few were willing to predict how it would fare at the box office. Aspiring Director Hasam al-Hosaini(ph) wondered if audiences could sit through its nearly three-hour length. His thoughts reflected the same class consciousness that dominates the movie.

Mr. HASAM AL-HOSAINI (Filmmaker, Egypt): Most of the people that go to movies are the lower class, from C class, D class, you know what I mean? If the movie was a little bit short, maybe they would have accepted because they want to see the stars. They won't care about the idea more than just they want to see it because it's full of stars. That's one thing that's tricky. It might attract the real fans of movies and it might not. I don't know.

KENYON: The Yacoubian Building is showing in Egypt and Kuwait and will premiere in France in August. A U.S. distribution schedule was not immediately available.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

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'Yacoubian Building' Houses Uncomfortable Truths

Marwan Hamed on set

Director Marwan Hamed (right), 27, on the set of The Yacoubian Building. The movie will cost about $3 million -- two times more than any other Egyptian film. Bill Deputy, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Bill Deputy, NPR
Marwan and Wahid Hamed

The father-son team of Marwan and Wahid Hamed. Egypt's most celebrated screenwriter, father Wahid has written more than 40 films. Julia Buckley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Julia Buckley, NPR
Alaa Al Aswany

Author Alaa Al Aswany has been criticized for his unflinching look at Egyptian society. Julia Buckley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Julia Buckley, NPR

Book Excerpts

The controversial, best-selling Egyptian novel The Yacoubian Building describes a country that is corrupt, unfair and thuggish. It follows the lives of residents both rich and poor of the Yacoubian, an actual apartment building in downtown Cairo.

Now, the novel is being made into a star-studded, $3 million film — a large budget by Egyptian standards — which the producer hopes will be "an Egyptian Ocean's Eleven."

But the significance of The Yacoubian Building transcends its record-setting budget and its pantheon of top Egyptian actors.

Yacoubian takes a look at sometimes uncomfortable truths about life in contemporary Egypt. It tackles subjects considered taboo in traditional Egyptian society, such as homosexuality, and even features a corrupt imam.

Wahid Hamed is Egypt's most celebrated screenwriter and wrote the screenplay for Yacoubian. "I think [the movie] will be like a document of the time we live in," he says, noting that the movie says in public what many citizens are thinking in private.

Underlying the novel — and the making of the film version — is a fundamental question: How undemocratic is a society that tolerates such scathing criticism?

Robert Siegel talks with the creative minds behind The Yacoubian Building — author Alaa Al Aswany and father-and-son team, screenwriter Wahid Hamed and director Marwan Hamed — about sex, religion, filmmaking, literature and freedom of expression in Egypt.

Web Extra: Audio

More from Robert Siegel's interviews

Listen: Director Marwan Hamed on the difficulty of changing Egyptian society

Listen: Author Alaa Al Aswany on inequity, corruption and terrorists



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