November 12, 2012 3:28 pm

Director keeps focus on Egypt censorship

When Egyptian film director Amr Salama and other artists met the culture committee of the now dissolved Islamist-dominated parliament earlier this year, they wanted to discuss freedom of artistic creativity.

But the lawmakers in post-revolution Egypt wanted to talk about censorship. One Islamist MP told the artists that the days when they were able to make films that “insulted’’ them are over, while others suggested blocking websites deemed immoral.

“I told the parliament, ‘what censorship are you talking about?’,” says Mr Salama, who was ultrareligious when he was younger. “I can insult whomever I want, watch whatever I want, I can watch porn all day at home; how can you stop me? This is a new generation, they are uncontrollable.’’

The anecdote shows how Mr Salama’s quiet demeanour masks a fierce revolutionary spirit. His account of how he was brutally beaten by the police for protesting on January 25 last year, the first day of the popular uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule, has infuriated and inspired tens of thousands of his fans.

“We were very scared on January 25 and when I published my story two days later, I got scared even more and kept switching apartments to avoid being arrested,’’ says Mr Salama. “But I was angry with the idea that Gamal Mubarak [Mr Mubarak’s son] will be imposed on us as if we were sheep. With the internet we found out there is a collective anger against Mubarak. It was not acceptable any more not to choose our rulers, that the state security and censorship are interfering in everything even in moviemaking.’’

To Mr Salama’s disappointment, censorship lives on in the new Egypt. A script he wrote about a boy from the country’s Christian minority who hides his identity to blend in with his Muslim classmates was repeatedly rejected before and has continued to be so after the revolution on the ground that it incites religious strife.

“It is promoting tolerance but they can’t see that,’’ he says. “They do not want to face the fact that Egypt has a Muslim-Christian issue.’’

Of the many tensions playing out in the today’s Egypt, the one between art and the country’s new Islamist rulers, led by President Mohamed Morsi, is one of the tautest. The battle has been building for years, as Egyptian film makers challenged what they saw as the narrow piety and political opportunism of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical militant groups, and discussed social concerns deemed immoral by the conservatives.

The century-old film industry, which saw its golden age in the 1940s and 1950s, has inspired generations across the Arab world, romanticised Egypt and promoted the Egyptian dialect. But it has often fallen victim of the changing political scene at home. In the 1960s, the country’s main production studios were nationalised by President Gamal Abdel Nasser and many films were made to serve his socialist ideology. Draconian censorship and state management of the studios stifled innovation and forced film makers out of the country or to use heavy symbolism.

But the Islamist ascent to power in Egypt has caused unprecedented jitters in the entertainment industry and has posted the most significant challenge in four decades. Islamist lawyers sued popular actor, Adel Imam, accusing him of contempt of religion because he portrayed a Muslim terrorist in a film years ago. A host on a religious television channel called veteran actress Elham Shahin an adulteress and asked her: “How many men have mounted you?’’

Another lawmaker suggested the authorities should “clean’’ the Egyptian movie archive of “nude scenes’’, which, in the Egyptian context, means couples in bed in their nightwear.

“Everybody is afraid and wants to wait to see what the Muslim Brotherhood will do. Projects are on hold,’’ says Mr Salama. “But society itself thinks movies are sinful. That will change when the religious discourse changes. We could still communicate what we want within what is acceptable to society.’’

Born in Saudi Arabia in 1982, a year after Mr Mubarak took power in Egypt; Mr Salama’s many talents brought acclaim abroad and at home. His second feature film, Asmaa, released in 2011, won more than 18 local and international prizes, including best Arab director award in Abu Dhabi’s International Film Festival New Horizons competition. Inspired by true events, the film tells the story of a woman with HIV battling against social prejudice in Egypt.

“The reception was beyond amazing, we thought people will attack us because of the subject,’’ he says. “Man versus society or, woman versus society, is my favourite theme. People sympathised with Asmaa because we are all fighting the same battle; we feel we are all minority – even the Islamists – and we are angry at each other. It was an outcry against all prejudices and misconception with which many in Egypt can relate.’’

His documentary, which he co-directed, Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad & The Politician, premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and won several international awards. It tells the story of January 25 from the viewpoint of the revolutionaries, the police and the politicians in power.

But, being once an ultra-conservative himself, Mr Salama says he understands where the Islamists are coming from and that they are part of the overall fabric of a conservative society. He plans to focus more on film making after almost two years of political activities triggered by the call for change by Mohamed ElBaradei, former UN nuclear agency chief, whom he admires.

“The movie industry is at 10 per cent of its capacity because the security still has to approve scripts and give permits to shooting on the streets,’’ He says.

Mr Salama, who did a degree in commerce to “please his parents”, taught himself directing, editing and script writing online. He is also a blogger whose YouTube channel attracted more than 1.5m viewers. His first book, A Kiosk Guy: A Journey in Search of the Handlebars, about a teenager looking for a missing puzzle to win a prize, was a best-seller and was downloaded 150,000 times.

“I am pessimistic in the short term. But in the long term this is bigger than all of us,’’ he says. “I am glad Mohamed Morsi won the election so that people could see the Islamists are taking loans, dealing with Israel and America. Everybody will be forced to be more moderate, even the Islamists.’’

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