Egypt filmmakers defy taboos of conservative society

Egyptian actress Yasmin Raeis speaks during an AFP interview in the capital Cairo, on March 1, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 12 March 2018

Egypt filmmakers defy taboos of conservative society

CAIRO: Filmmakers in Egypt are defying a largely conservative society with television series and movies that deal with modern relationships between men and women and the empowerment of the young.
In its heyday between the 1950s and the 1970s, Egypt had one of the largest and most dynamic movie industries in the world.
The golden age of Egyptian cinema starred fiery, determined women and love scenes that rivalled those of Western movies at the time.
“Things started to change in the 1980s” as social freedoms regressed and society grew more puritanical, leading Arab film critic Tarek El Shenawi told AFP.
Under the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood group and Arab Gulf countries, conservatism expanded steadily in Egyptian society during the time.
Braving criticism from conservatives, young directors are now becoming more daring in their work.
Such productions often stir controversy, but they still attract millions of viewers online.
In the film “Balash Tebosni” (Kiss Me Not), young director Ahmed Amer makes fun of the taboo on passionate kisses in contemporary Egyptian cinema.
“Comedy makes the people a bit more open to the theme,” Amer told AFP.
In the “adults only” movie, Amer tries to shoot a kissing scene but the actress refuses to comply, stressing that she wants to become a more devout Muslim.
The “film within a film” satirises the dogged resistance of his starlet in what has become an increasingly puritanical society.
Yasmin Raeis, who plays the actress, said she remembers how such scenes used to be “totally normal” in Egyptian movies she watched as a child.
“Then as I got older, suddenly people started saying that this shouldn’t happen” in movies anymore, she said.
Raeis said she could not understand the taboo on kissing when audiences stream to watch thrillers and action movies packed with scenes of violence.
“That’s what’s strange. We should be condemning violence, not romance,” she said.
The idea for Balash Tebosni originated in a short film which Amer had tried but failed to complete in real life because the leading actress was disgusted by the idea of an onscreen kiss.
Family comedies have also become a hit.
Watched by millions on YouTube, “Sabaa Gar” (Seventh Neighbour), a series which airs on the private CBC Entertainment channel, has faced a storm of accusations that it corrupts Egypt’s youth.
A single woman living alone and seeing men out of wedlock, or another who smokes in secret, Sabaa Gar shows the young demanding control over their own lives.
This contrasts with the stricter social norms that the older generation still holds on to and highlights the generation gap in Egyptian society.
The goal was not to spur controversy, said Heba Yousry, one of the series’ three all-female co-directors.
Sabaa Gar has “allowed people to understand each other and to learn about how the new generation thinks,” she said.
Among the story lines is one of a young woman who wants to have a child, but does not want to share her life with a man.
She agrees with a work colleague to get married for the sole purpose of having a baby, and then to get divorced.
A similar theme was the subject of hit comedy “Bashtery Ragel” (I’m Buying a Man), released in Egyptian cinemas in February 2017 on Valentine’s Day.
At the same time, however, many Egyptian actresses refuse to be filmed in kissing scenes or to play roles that could be regarded as immoral.
Some have even quit the industry for religious reasons.
Egyptian authorities under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, in power since 2013, have clamped down on activities deemed immoral.
In the latest case, Egypt last month banned the Arabic version of US television’s “Saturday Night Live” for use of “sexual expressions, phrases and gestures... which violate ethical and professional standards.”

Cirque du Soleil in Saudi Arabia: The perfect tribute to a rich culture

Crique du Soleil in Riyadh. (Arab News)
Updated 24 September 2018

Cirque du Soleil in Saudi Arabia: The perfect tribute to a rich culture

  • Crique du Soleil created a spectacular show in Riyadh for the national day
  • They paid tribute to the Saudi culture and heritage

RIYADH: The circus — a place that is almost synonymous with joy and delight. Since time immemorial, circuses have been places of celebration and glee, and few as much as the premier name in the industry: Cirque du Soleil.

The show has had a devoted fan in me since 2006, when I attended a performance of their production “Quidam” and my definition of the word “circus” was turned upside-down. Their unique approach to art, performance, costumes and music has secured their status as a household name and a benchmark for all other circus shows to be measured against.

On Sunday night, Saudi Arabia’s National Day, the circus brought their incredible acrobatics to Riyadh’s King Fahad Stadium and it turned out to be a night to remember.

Prior to the event, Cirque’s Vice President of Creation Daniel Fortin offered little in the way of spoilers but hinted that we would see something the likes of which we never had before. With the promises of exclusive new acts, music, costumes and stage tricks piquing my excitement, I joined a throng of green-and white-clad spectators flooding the stadium. Performing to a sold-out crowd, the show kicked off at exactly 8.30 p.m. and the magic truly began.

Barely five minutes into the show, something stole over me as I settled into the rhythm of the music, something I saw flickering over the faces of those in the crowd around me: Recognition. We were seeing ourselves, our identity, echoed back at us, but with a twist. We saw ourselves through someone else’s eyes — someone respectful and admiring.

As a Saudi youth today, it has become an unfortunately common occurrence to face negativity from various outsiders, born of ignorance or fear. It has become dreary and repetitive to have to continually defend my people and my culture from those who have no wish to understand us.

But at this show? I saw my country once more through the eyes of an outsider, but this time, it was different. I saw my culture and my heritage lauded, celebrated, delicately fused with that tangible Cirque du Soleil flair. The attention to detail was careful, almost loving, but also daring and outlandish. It was a glorious fusion of classic Saudi aesthetics with the ethereal, bizarre beauty of Cirque du Soleil.

The symbolism was not always obvious, sometimes it was subtle, constrained to the beat of a drum or hidden in a snatch of song. Other times, it was blatant and bold, in the sloping hump of an elegantly clumsy camel costume, or the billowing of the Bedouin Big Top in the gentle breeze. And yet, unmistakeably, I felt the Saudi influences in every note of the performance. It felt like an homage, and yet it did nothing to diminish its own identity. It remained unquestionably a Cirque du Soleil performance, only below the usual circus frippery, there was a ribbon of something else that lay coiled beneath the surface. Something bright, vibrant green. Saudi green.

The spectacle rounded off with an astonishing display of fireworks, so plentiful that for a moment, the sky glowed bright as day. To me, each one felt like a promise fulfilled. A dream achieved. A miracle witnessed. Here, on my own home soil, it was the perfect tribute to a rich and vivid culture.