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Egyptian pic stirs controversy with depictions of corruption

'Yacoubian Building' set for January release

The biggest-budget film in Egyptian film history has just wrapped with controversy already brewing over its racy content.

“The Yacoubian Building,” based on Alaa Al-Aswany’s bestselling novel, follows the exploits of the residents of a central Cairo apartment block, tackling such hot-potato subjects as corruption, fundamentalism, prostitution and drugs.

“The portrayal will be daring in a way that the current cultural atmosphere in Egypt is not used to,” director Marwan Hamed tells Variety. The $6 million budget — more than double the cost of any other film in Arab history — has brought together an all-star cast that includes Egyptian comedian Adel Imam as well as Tunisian actress Hend Sabri.

“There are a lot of taboos the film takes on,” Sabri said. “The story has a lot of courage.”

Al-Aswany’s book has been a sensation since its Arabic-language publication in 2002, selling more than 100,000 copies in the Mideast alone, and criticized in some quarters for its vociferous critique of Egyptian society.

The film rights were acquired by aspiring Egyptian media mogul Imad Adeeb, an Egyptian TV personality previously known for his six-hour interview with Egyptian prexy Hosni Mubarak back in April.

Adeeb is producing the film, his first foray into cinema, through his Good News Prods., part of a fledgling media empire that also includes a radio channel, magazines and theaters.

In its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, Egyptian cinema was the third-biggest film industry in the world. Chronic underinvestment and producers’ overreliance on tired old formulas of slapstick comedy and facile love stories have seen its appeal drop across the Arab world.

“The Yacoubian Building,” and the emergence of the ambitious Adeeb on the “Hollywood on the Nile” scene may prove a sign of better times ahead.

Hamed is all too aware of the pressures on him to deliver.

“The novel was very popular across Egypt and the Arab world, so expectations are a bit scary,” the 26-year old said. “It’s important we meet everyone’s expectations and make money so that next time we want to make such an ambitious project we can get the backing for it.”

Hamed’s cameras first rolled last December, only wrapping recently after an epic six-month shoot. With its panoramic portrayal of life in the bustling Cairo metropolis set over the last 50 years, Hamed had plenty of obstacles to overcome with the subject matter, most notably the film’s candid depiction of homosexuality. “Gay characters have never talked so deeply before,’ he noted. “This line will definitely be the most controversial.”

With a projected three-month post-production schedule, “The Yacoubian Building” is set for release in January.

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