Egypt’s ‘Dunia’ had tough slog

Controversy, illness, coin trouble nearly derailed project

Getting a film made is rarely easy for Mideast helmers, but for director Jocelyn Saab the three-year journey to get her pic “Dunia” released in the region tested new levels of endurance.

Political controversy, illness and financing troubles nearly derailed the project, but the pic about a young Egyptian woman who yearns to follow in the footsteps of her mother and become a successful dancer will finally preem Nov. 8 in Cairo, followed by releases in Jordan and the Palestinian Territory.

 Pic, which first screened at the 2005 Cannes Film Fest, has stirred great interest in Egypt for being the last unveiled appearance by lead actress Hanan Turk before she shocked Egyptian auds and industry figures in June with her decision to don the Islamic headdress of the hijab.

Turk’s public, and some would say political, decision to embrace her religion is indicative of a growing trend among young Egyptian women to wear the headscarf.

“The cinema profession was angry about her decision, from the minister to the everyday people. That’s one of the main reasons they allowed my film to get distribution in Cairo,” says Saab.

Turk’s move even drew a barbed riposte from grand old man of Egyptian cinema Youssef Chahine.

“She must have gone crazy,” said Chahine when quizzed on the incident.

Turk has refused to do any publicity for the film.

Pic has already screened in Beirut, when Saab personally took prints there on Sept. 6 as a message of solidarity after the month-long war with Israel.

“I want the color of passion to take the place of the color of blood. Ideas cannot be destroyed,” says Saab.

Saab is releasing pic with 20 prints in Egypt through her own shingle. “They wanted 50 prints but I couldn’t afford it. I’m trying to introduce a new style of releasing films. I just hope it doesn’t kill me,” quips Saab.

 For a long time, it looked as if the Lebanese helmer wouldn’t even get to the end of lensing. Pic’s funders ART pulled its coin only 15 days before cameras were set to roll in 2004, threats were made to Turk throughout the shoot, while Saab lost three exec producers during the production.

It all proved too much for the 58-year-old helmer, who has been directing since 1975. Soon after lensing was finished she suffered a near-fatal stroke. Now fully recovered, Saab is relieved the pic is finally seeing the light of day in the Arab world.

“They were saying this film was cursed. There was a permanent fight but people in the film industry told me they wouldn’t let the film not exist. You have to fight hard but I’ve always said you can work if you really want it,” says Saab.

But Saab’s troubles didn’t end there. Even after the pic was cleared by Egyptian censors, she had to fight to get her film distributed in Egypt. Prints of the film took three weeks to clear Cairo customs, while all the posters and publicity materials mysteriously disappeared.

“I called a very important figure in the national cinema office to tell him what was going on. An hour later, they called me back to tell me they had found them,” adds Saab.

 The wariness over the growing conservatism in the country is echoed by several local film producers.

“With a film like ‘Sleepless Nights’ in 2003, for example, it was the people who were uncomfortable with the movie, not the authorities,” says Gabriel Khoury, managing director of Misr Intl., the shingle behind vet helmer Chahine.

“There is greater difficulty now to get your films made, especially if you want to make the film you would like to make.”

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