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Egyptian titles aim to shatter taboos

Controversial films dominate box office

LONDON A clutch of taboo-busting pics are dominating the Egyptian box office.

Khaled Youssef’s “Heena maysara” (Until Things Get Better), Sherif Arafa’s “Al-gazira” (The Island) and Youssef Chahine’s “Heya fwada” (Chaos) have generated plenty of ink, drawing the ire of the religious establishment with their depictions of corruption, poverty, crime and sexuality.

Just as importantly, the pics are garnering boffo admissions from Egyptian auds tired of the stale, formulaic comedies and romances that were until recently a staple of the local film biz.

Grand old man of Egyptian cinema Chahine has, at age 81, scored the biggest box office hit of his career with “Chaos,” in which the central character is a rotund, corrupt police chief. Pic has garnered 1.4 million admissions, according to its producers Misr Intl.

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Arafa’s “The Island,” allegedly based on the real-life downfall of a local drug lord, deals with the issues of opium and arms trading and, most contentiously, the relationship between gangsters and the government. Pic has brought in more than a million admissions in two weeks, and is one of the fastest grossing films in Egyptian history.

Most hot-potato of all, arguably, is Youssef’s “Until Things Get Better.” Pic, which is set in a poverty-stricken slum on the outskirts of Cairo, rails against the desperate conditions its inhabitants have to live in and includes scenes that include a mother abandoning her young child, a rape and numerous violent fights.

The most controversial of all, however, has been a brief kiss between two women — one a lesbian, the other a prostitute — which has provoked the fury of some Muslim clerics in the country. One Islamic studies professor at Cairo U. called for Youssef and the two actresses (Ghada Abdel-Razeq and Sumaya Al-Khashab) to be prosecuted by the authorities and accused the film of being part of “a Zionist and American conspiracy” to corrupt Egyptian society.

“In the beginning there was a lot of controversy about this scene but if you see the whole film it’s not about lesbianism,” says Youssef, who also co-helmed and co-wrote “Chaos” with Chahine. “It deals with the poverty and the struggle these people have to go through to survive. There is a change amongst audiences now. They want to see films which are relevant.”

The trio of films come on the back of previous Egyptian taboo-buster “The Yacoubian Building,” Egypt’s biggest film of 2006. That film, which dealt with homosexuality, Islamic fundamentalism and corruption, is seen by many as opening the doors for the current crop of adult-oriented features.

“The comedies and romances that used to be hits aren’t working anymore,” says Misr Intl.’s Gaby Khoury who produced “Chaos. ” and has another serious-minded pic, Yousry Nasrallah’s psychological drama “Aquarium,” in the pipeline.

Egyptian helmers’ return to hard-hitting subject matter is also having an impact on the wider Arab film biz.

Rotana, Saudi prince Waleed bin Talal’s multimedia shingle and one of the largest producers and distributors of Arab music and film, has picked up all rights for “Chaos” outside Egypt. Execs there, who would normally have shied away from such edgy fare, are hoping to ink deals beyond the Middle East with distribs in Europe and the U.S.