A local film about a gay teenager’s struggle manages to make it past censorship.
When it comes to local film-making, three topics have always raised red flags with the Censorship Office: sex, politics and religion. Since the 2011 Revolution, the barriers facing narratives and documentaries about the local political situation have somehow diminished. But the two remaining taboos, sex and religion, are still challenging for Egyptian filmmakers to get past censorship. That door opened just a crack recently when the Censorship Office’s Grievance Committee, after many appeals from the filmmakers, approved the film Asrar Aelia (Family Secrets, 2014), tackling homosexuality as its main subject for the first time.
The resistance to portraying homosexuality in the movies has not been an Egyptian issue alone. The 1995 American documentary The Celluloid Closet revealed that as late as the 1970s, homosexuality was hidden or only implied in certain Western films, for example in such classics as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Pillow Talk (1959), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) to name but a few.
In Egyptian cinema, examples were fewer and rarely noticed. Sometimes, the depiction was used for laughs, for example in comedian Ismael Yasseen’s cross-dressing roles in films like Al-Anessa Hanafi (Miss Hanafi, 1954). In dramatic films, gays were never central characters and actors rarely agreed to play their roles. (See box for examples.)
Except for his screenwriting debut Ard al-Ahlam (Land of Dreams) in 1993, all of the films written by writer-director Hani Fawzi faced obstacles while being certified by the censors. His Film Hindi (Indian Film, 2003) and Baheb el-Sima (I Love Cinema, 2004) both came under heavy scrutiny because they discussed issues between Copts and Muslims. Fawzi addressed the conflicts that arise from studying or creating arts amid Egypt’s conservative religious traditions in his screenplay for the 2009 drama Belalwan el-Tabeia (True Colors).
Fawzi again found himself in that conflict when he made his debut as a director with Family Secrets. Based on true stories, the film focuses on teenaged Marwan, played by Mohamed Mahran, who feels he is more attracted to men. With a father travelling abroad most of the time and a mother occupied in cooking and cleaning the house, he tries to meet others like him through the internet until he decides to seek medical help.
The making of Family Secrets began in 2010 when Fawzi was teaching a screen writing workshop in the Jesuit School. One of his students was Mohamed Abdel-Kader, who originally studied agriculture but was working on an idea for a film. Abdel-Kader later visited Fawzi to show him the draft of his first script, which ultimately became Family Secrets.
“We worked on the script together for eight months until it was finished,” recalls Fawzi, adding that they finalized it in 2012. “I then went to present it to many Egyptian producers, who rejected it because of its subject. Finally a friend of mine, who originally wanted to co-finance True Colors, decided to come on board and produce Family Secrets.
“Of course, I explained to him beforehand the complexity of our local market in finding a distributor and a release date because there were so many films with so many stars before the revolution of January 25. But now, everything has changed. [...] A film like Family Secrets can find a cinema because there are quite few films in the market. That’s why the film was easily acquired by al-Arabia company for Distribution.”
Then there was the challenge of depicting a gay character in a straightforward manner. “In these Egyptian films, a gay character was always a secondary role and his condition was roughly discussed”, explains Fawzi who consulted with real-life therapist Dr. Awsam Wasfy, played in the film by Emad al-Raheb.
Even though the script was approved to be shot, Family Secrets still ran into problems with the Censorship Office before its release in January, with the censors demanding the removal of scenes that Fawzi felt were crucial to the story. The director believes that the censors are always shocked when they see an Egyptian film reflecting reality because they feel there should be a thick line between fictionalized accounts and daily life. “When we presented the finished film, the censorship [officials] did not object to the subject of the film but did [object to] some profanities in the dialogue which were originally in the screenplay they approved prior to shooting.”
The director explains that the censors also objected to one scene in which Marwan shares the bed with one of his male acquaintances. Fawzi says he edited this scene and cut the swear words from the final print before the film was finally approved with a For Adults Only label, equivalent to the NC-17 rating in the United States and 18 rating in the United Kingdom.
“I think we should openly discuss our problems and fears,” Fawzi says. “Censorship should be cancelled or remodeled to restrict films for certain ages like in Europe and the States. On the surface, the film discusses how we see homosexuality now in Egypt. But deep down, it is a drama about someone’s quest for his identity. It also shows that one should face his inner problems in order to resolve them.”
Finding an actor to play the lead role in Family Secrets was quite difficult. “We have a lack of young stars to play an 18-year-old teenager,” explains Fawzi who had 15 actors decline the role before he found a newcomer.
Mohamed Mahran had dreamed of becoming an actor since his childhood, and when he was in his second year of secondary school, he was nominated as Best Actor in a national competition for schools. Mahran went on to study acting and directing at the Higher Institute of Theatrical Arts, graduating in 2011. During his studies, he acted only in theatrical plays and one TV show.
“I was contacted by one of Hani Fawzi’s assistant directors after hearing about my acting,” said Mahran who landed the role after script readings in front of the filmmakers. “In the beginning, I hesitated to take the role for two reasons. First, because many declined to play it; and second, because many common people cannot tell the difference between an actor and the character he plays. But after reading [the script] and consulting my father who supported me, I decided to go for it.”
After two months of rehearsals, Marwan started filming his scenes under Fawzi’s direction. “I did a lot of research by talking to some people to get inspiration and to psychologists for scientific facts,” explained Marwan. “My preparations are quite academic — reading acting and psychology books to research the character.”
Next for Mohamed Mahran is a romantic drama called Baad el-Hob (After Love), a debut by filmmaker Mohamed Nader, about an Alexandrian writer falling in love with two young women at the same time. Mahran also has a supporting role in the TV drama Ouloub (Hearts) by Hussein Shawkat with Ola Ghanem and Naglaa Badr. et
Gay characters in Egyptian Cinema
Al-Midaq Alley (1963): In this film adaptation of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s book, Mohamed Redda plays El-Maalem Kersha, a macho man who takes an interest in young men visiting his coffee shop.
Hamam al-Malatili (The Bathhouse of Al-Malatili, 1973): In Salah Abou-Seif’s film, Youssef Shaaban plays Raouf, who makes advances to the naive Ahmed, played by Wagdi al-Arabi.
Qettah Ala Nar (Cat on Fire, 1977): In this film, based on Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Nour el-Sherif plays Amin, who neglects his wife until a rumor surfaces that he is having a relationship with another man.
Deil al-Samaka (Fish TAIL, 2003): Raouf Mostafa plays an old, lonely gay man whose advances are rejected by electricity meter rman Ahmed, played by Amr Waked.
The Yacoubian Building (2006): Khaled al-Sawi plays gay journalist Hatem Rachid, but his character was r