Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Yacoubian Building (Omaret) -- major film from Egypt




Title: The Yacoubian Building
Language: Arabic (credits in actual Arabic alphabet) with English subtitles; original Arabic title Omaret Yacoubian
Distributor and production company: BAC and Good News, Egypt. No American distributor is known yet. Filmed in Cairo, Egypt with some post production in London. (Note: 2011: IMDB shows Sundance Channel as distributor)
Director: Marwan Hamed
Novel: Alaa Al-Aswany
Length: 172 min
Aspect: 1.85:1, Dolby Digital
Date: 2006 (Vancouver Film Festival; 2007 Washingtin DC International Film Festival, web entry:
Rating: Not rated as of now, but would probably be rated R for violence and explicit sexuality

This knockout film proves that “mainstream” Islam is certainly capable of producing work of enormous intellectual and literary value – which in the case of film means compelling issues, stories, and especially vivid characters. This is the kind of work Islam did a millennium ago before its decline. There is a point at which the religious police invade the apartment of one of the main characters, a young police cadet, and question him about all the books in this apartment. “Books mean knowledge” he says. At one point there is some comment about lost Arabic leadership in science and math. This film really does underscore a huge tragedy of history.

The omaret is actually a rococo apartment building in Cairo build by Armenians in 1934. The opening of the film summarizes its glory day history, when the rich lived there in Trump-like fashion, before political and religious turmoil. In current times, an interesting mix of people would live there, and there are open-air rooftop apartments with servants and low income people. I had never heard of an apartment building like that before.

The story mixes the lives of some of the residents, somewhat in Robert Atlman fashion. In time, much of the story focuses on a gay relationship between an aging journalist and the young police cadet. Various other episodes in the script delineate the Muslin idea of family: it is a way to produce and raise children, provide a lineage, kinfolk, and manage property according to a religious legal system (sharia) that believes itself to be just. It does not necessarily promote love for its own sake. Therefore, men might fall in love covertly for their own personal selfish benefit. There is no such thing as homosexual orientation, only homosexual experience. The journalist rationalizes it by saying that only heterosexual adultery is real sin, because only heterosexual relations can produce children by another partner, outside the family system controlled by religious law. This sounds convincing for a while (it is almost like the Rosenfels idea of psychological surplus, and it sounds amazing that it would occur in Islam – but this is the pre-radical Islam). But eventually a corrupt government and police department catches up with its own cadet. They torture him (“Midnight Express” style), strip him and subject him to non-consensual relations themselves. The circle of official corruption is complete. The movie drifts toward a violent – and quite breathtaking -- conclusion in the streets in front of the apartment building. There are many other side excursions, such as a lawsuit by a sister, and discussions of many other controversies in the Islamic world. Particular attention is given in the script to not just the legal formalities of marriage, but the more nebulous idea of "family honor," not just for the married but also among adult children and siblings -- a notion which seems to give people emotional context in a society with much less than perfect individual freedom, and which seems hard-wired into familial heterosexuality itself.

The movie is said to be in litigation in Egypt because it too closely portrays the lives of real people. Let us hope these problems can be surmounted and that an American distributor (say Lions Gate, or maybe Strand) can pick it up.

Picture: 4000 Wisconsin Ave in Washington DC, Filmfest DC site, used to be a Cineplex Odeon theater site (now AMC). Closed, hope it will be renovated and reopened.

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