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Provocative 'Yacoubian' Film Opens in Cairo


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.