Arab world rejects Ridley Scott's Exodus as inaccurate, Zionist, blasphemous

At least three Arab countries have banned Ridley Scott's movie Exodus, featuring Christian Bale as Moses. Egyptian censor Abdel Sattar Fathy explained that: "the movie contains misleading information, including that the Jews helped build the pyramids and are God's chosen people.". The Egyptian Minister of Culture has described the film as  "Zionist," and a statement from the Ministry said that censors found "intentional gross historical fallacies that offend Egypt and its pharaonic ancient history in yet another attempt to Judaize Egyptian civilization, which confirms the international Zionist fingerprints all over the film." There are truly quite a few historical inaccuracies in the film, but not more than in your average Hollywood movie. 

Scott's choice to give the Biblical miracle of parting of the Red Sea a pseudo-scientific explanation, ascribing it to an earthquake and undercutting its divine nature, was not appreciated.

The United Arab Emirates also banned the film. In Morocco, it was reportedly Minister of Communication Mustapha El Khalfi, a member of the governing Islamist Justice and Development Party, who pushed to have the film banned (after the Al Jazeera satellite channel raised the issue) even though it had been approved by the Centre Cinematographic Marocain.. But in fact it's unclear where the decision originated. The main objection in Morocco was not to the Jewish people getting credit for the pyramids but rather to a scene in which God may be personified as a small child who speaks to Moses. Depicting God is forbidden in Islam (and even depicting his prophets is frowned upon). Much of Exodus was actually filmed in Morocco, which is used as a backdrop for many films set in the Middle East, and which is trying to expand its cinematographic industry (and had just spent millions of dollars to hold the International Marrakesh Film Festival). 

Scott had previously come in for some criticism for his all-white cast of lead actors (subalterns are of color, as far as I understand), and responded by saying that he couldn't get the financial backing to make a block-buster film like this if he cast "Mohamed so-and-so." Rupert Murdoch, who owns the film's distributor, was surprised to find out that all Egyptians weren't white.

Oil and Sand

 

In Search of Oil and Sand Trailer (French subtitles) from wael sayedalahl on Vimeo.

 

Issandr and I recently had the pleasure of watching the documentary In Search of Oil and Sand. This is an extremely personal, suprising and charming glimpse of Egyptian history. Narrator Mahmoud Sabit -- a neighbor of ours here in Garden City in Cairo, who lives in an astonishing crumbling old villa that belonged to his family -- is the son of a cousin and chief of protocoal for Egypt's last king. 

In the weeks before the 1952 Officer's Coup, his father and many of the other young glam royals were running around making a movie they'd written and cast themselves in ("Oil and Sand") about...a coup d'etat in an unnamed Arab country. The movie also featured actual US and UK Embassy officers (and likely intelligence operatives) playing the part of...American and Brittish spy-masters. 

The actual film was destroyed after the coup, but Sabet found the black and white rushes. This "royal home movie," as the trailer calls it, gives a sense of the (incredibly glamorous, perhaps heedless) lifestyle of the Cairo elite just before the revolution. When the faces of the Free Officers appear on camera towards the end of the movie, you understand how much they are coming from a completley different world. 

You don't have to be nostalgic for the monarchy -- or to agree with Sabet's argument that the US, in supporting the Free Officers, ushered in authoritarianism -- to find the film fascinating.  

Most of the people in the movie lost everything and were treated with what seems like remarkable pettiness by the Nasser regime. What's saddening aren't such personal losses and upheavals, but how little was gained from them. It's striking -- knowing what we know now -- to hear General Mohammed Naguib declare that the 1952 Revolution's goal is to "end corruption" in Egypt.

In a country whose modern history has been clumsily papered over and cordoned off, and that has yet to deal with the legacy of the Nasser regime (let alone the Mubarak one), this is a beautifiully shot and edited, modest but lyrical, act of historical recovery. 

Tahrir, the movie

At Ferrara's international journalism festival (put on by the excellent Italian paper Internazionale) I saw the film Tahrir this afternoon. I was afraid it might be too familiar, or sentimental, or iconographic, but it was lovely. Italian film-maker Stefano Savona spent days in Tahrir Square and got some amazing footage. Here for example is a clip of the protesters fighting to defend the square from pro-Mubarak thugs:

And here is a completely different side of Tahrir: the funny, moving, poeting chants that inspired protesters came up with on the spot:

What's just as interesting are the long conversations between the young Egyptias the film-maker followed around the square, discussing (with remarkably clarity and insight) all the questions and difficulties of the coming transitional period. It was quite emotional for me to watch this film, at this moment, when the revolution's promises are so far from realized and when the aims and sacrifices of those involved in it have been (despite official lip service paid to the "glorious revolution") distorted and disparaged by the army, the security services, former regime elements and a disturbing number of media outlets. It's a good reminder of all the outrage, courage, and optimism on display during those 18 days, and of their continued potential. The film is playing in New York on October 2 and 4. And I really hope it will be showing in Egypt soon.