• EGYPT \ Nov 24, 2004
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    Temple of the sinners
Temple of the sinners They studied at the same school, attended the same Christian prayer services and belong to the same generation of filmmakers in Egypt. The director Osama Fawzi and screenwriter Hani Fawzi Kozman were both Copts, until Fawzi converted to Islam prior to this marriage. Together they created the film "I Love the Cinema," against which a lawsuit is still pending, for hurting the religious feelings of the Copt minority in Egypt.

The film describes the life and times of a Copt family living in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Shubra. The father, Adli (Mahmoud Hamida) is a strict conservative, who fasts 200 days a year and has pronounced that having sexual relations on fast days is a punishable offense.

His wife, Naamath (the wonderful actress Laila Eloui), a former artist whose husband has forbidden her to show her works, is appointed principal of a school and is forced to eliminate art lessons, due to pressure from the parents. She subsequently meets an artist who encourages her to go back to art and begin painting.

As expected, a romance develops between the two. The son, Na'im, develops a great love for movies after his uncle takes him to a cinema. The movie theater is both refuge and rebellion against the father, who considers it a sin to watch movies.

And then comes the turning point - the father discovers that he is suffering a terminal disease. He begins to see the environment in which he lives as corrupt. Even his boss, the police, cabinet ministers and the prime minister are suddenly seen as liars and cheats. He - whose sole desire in life was to be the thief who was crucified alongside Jesus - realizes his own hypocrisy and asks forgiveness for it. He seeks absolution by taking his family to the cinema.

The film is replete with political allusions and symbols. Its release to theaters has been delayed for three years due to budget and censorship problems. Shortly before its completion, its producers were required to screen it before an audience of Copt clergymen, in order to receive their approval that the film did not insult them in any way. The producers went even further - they screened the film in an auditorium filled with intellectuals and clergymen from all religious streams. This type of censorship is not only acceptable, but is required by law, mainly as it pertains to works of a religious nature.

According to the Egyptian "system," it is required to receive the censor's approval of the screenplay, an authorization that remains valid for only one year, after which it must be extended. However, even after the authorization has been granted and the film has been produced, the censor can still deny approval to release the film. When that happens, the court is asked to rule on the case.

Aside from daring scenes that include embraces and kisses, adultery and unfaithfulness, and an affront to a holy site when the boy Na'im urinates on his aunt's leg in church, or when a woman beats a priest with her high-heel shoe, most of the argument concerns the way in which the Copts in the film are presented. Critics of the film, members of the eight-million-strong Copt sect in Egypt, charge that the film hurts Christian believers and their customs, and portrays the Copts as a sinister, narrow-minded group that provokes its followers.

Some critics have attacked the director for having become fanatically hostile to the Copts following his conversion to Islam. The critics that brought the lawsuit cite the Egyptian criminal law, which forbids injury or disrespect to religious communities, and punishes what is defined as "injury to the unity of the nation" - sections of the law that any official can interpret as he sees fit, and which the court decides upon in accordance with the spirit of the times.

Conversely, a campaign has been launched in the Egyptian media to defend the work. Prominent spokesmen of the Copt community have been quoted as not having found anything wrong with the film, and who object to the suppression of freedom of artistic expression. The filmmakers, who were interviewed in the Al-Ahram Weekly, feel that the film is intended to denounce artistic repression and the censorship policy, and they intentionally chose the 1960s as the time period in which the film is set.

That time period was chosen not only because of the censorship practices of the period of President Gamal Abdul Nasser, but because making such a film about the contemporary period in Egypt would have introduced a tangled thicket of problems with the government. Interestingly, during the Nasser era it was possible to make films on controversial subjects that today, during the Mubarak era, would not even make it to the edge of the censor's desk.

Now there is a double-barreled argument: among the Copts over the degree to which the community has or will be hurt; and between the Copt opponents and the Egyptian culture ministry, which approved the screening of the film.

There is great sensitivity in Egypt to the Copts' allegations, especially in view of the criticism voiced in the United States about the suppression of rights of religious minorities in Egypt. Each year an American delegation travels to Egypt - and to all other countries that receive American aid - to examine the situation of the religious communities, and then submits its report to Congress.

In some instances, members of Congress introduced legislative bills to delay or to partially deny American aid to Egypt over the perceived harm to religious minorities. Some Egyptians accused Israel, of course, of being behind these legislative initiatives, particularly during the years in which Jewish representatives of the administration were sent to determine the situation of the Copts in Egypt. In any event, religious minorities are a soft spot for the Egyptian government, which usually prefers to proscribe works - art, cinema, etc. - that might lead to disputes with the political groups that represent them.