Veteran Egyptian director Youssef Chahine is probably crying all the way to the bank after a Cairo court two weeks ago banned his latest film, “El Muhaggar” (The Emigrant), on the grounds that it violated rules against screen depictions of religious prophets.
But the film cleaned up before the ban because Egypt’s sluggish legal system only got around to nixing the biblical-epic-style feature after it had already completed a successful 10-week run in major cinemas in Cairo and Alexandria.
Furthermore, the publicity generated by the controversial court case only served to whet public interest in the film, thereby adding to its box office take.
The suit against “El Muhaggar” (reviewed by Variety, Nov. 21) was brought by lawyer Mahmoud Abu Feid because the pic allegedly recounted the story of the prophet Joseph. Screen portrayals of religious prophets are forbidden by Egypt’s state censor.
Islam considers such Old Testament figures as Moses, Abraham, Noah and Joseph to be prophets. The prophet list also includes Jesus and, of course, Mohammed.
Depiction of any of these figures in films – even in voiceover words attributed to them – are taboo.
Such Hollywood films as “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “The Ten Commandments” (portraying Moses) have never been released in Egypt because of this non-prophet rule.
Chahine in fact secured the censor’s approval for filming the pic only after he changed its original title from “Joseph” to “Ram,” and made other script amendments.
But the court agreed with the plaintiff that the finished product was a thinly disguised rendering of the Joseph story and banned it.
The ban outraged many people – even those who disliked the film.
“The court decision makes a mockery of our constitution, which supposedly guarantees freedom of expression,” fumed Cairo film critic Mustafa Darwish, who nevertheless panned the film.
Chahine is no stranger to controversy. One of his earlier films, “Iskandariyya, Ley?” (Alexandria, Why?) was banned in several Arab countries as “Zionist propaganda” because of its sympathetic portrayal of an Egyptian Jewish family in Alexandria during World War II. Some of his pix of the 1950s and ’60s were criticized as catering solely to an elitist audience.