Review: Golia on the Yacoubian Building

My friend Maria Golia, writer, columnist and author of Cairo: City of Sand (What? You haven't read it yet? Do you like staying ignorant about contemporary Egypt and Umm ad-Dounia? What are you waiting for?) has sent me this review of Egypt's star-packed, hit movie of the summer, The Yacoubian Building, based on the Alaa Al Aswany novel of the same name. I haven't seen it yet and heard very conflicting opinions about it, and Maria's review puts it in the proper socio-political context.

Downtown Cairo’s Odeon Theater charges half the price of other first-run film venues and is consequently always packed. These days, it’s showing the screen adaptation of The Yacoubian Building, based on the eponymous novel by Alaa al-Aswany. Presented at several foreign film festivals, The Yacoubian Building is causing a stir for its so-called frank portrayal of corruption, torture, classism and several types of exploitative sex. The film itself is unsubtle, overlong and visually flat, with all the artistic merit of a wad of chewing gum stuck to the sole of a shoe. What is interesting is the response to the film, or more precisely, to the narrative content that survived the scriptwriter’s hackneyed treatment.

Following the early showings, word was out: The Yacoubian Building has gone too far! People left before intermission, an unheard-of event since Egyptians will sit through unimaginable tripe, if only to enjoy the A/C. When questioned as to who left and why, the ushers at the Odeon said it was mostly girls who found the R-rated film obscene. Whether this delicacy is real or feigned, it’s as melodramatic as the movie, whose only truly obscene moment is one we’ve seen before. Adel Imam - Egyptian comedy’s former tutelary deity, now a maudlin, pot-bellied grandpa - manages to grope and bestow his froggy kisses on yet another beautiful, ambitious bint.


The crowd at the Odeon was typical: mostly boys, a few with dates, several families with infants whose cries were lost in the din of conversation, critique, praise, and impromptu jokes. This continued unabated until the torture scene. The son of the building boab (an earnest youth refused admission to the police academy because of the accident of his birth) is disillusioned, recruited by fundamentalists and arrested by the police. The audience tensed at the sight of his battered, blindfolded face and remained so well into the next scene. As for the film’s homosexuality, a handsome police cadet’s seduction by an ageing gentleman is so caricatured, that the crowd roared with derisive - not nervous -laughter. When the two men fall into bed however (the young policeman is drunk) just before the scene cuts, the audience fell momentarily silent.

Not so the protectors of Egypt’s virtue; 112 members of parliament are indignantly determined to shield family values from such perversion. The film, they say, will be cut or banned. Order will be restored! Good lord. Haven’t these men got anything better to do? Like protect people from real, not celluloid abuse? Apparently not.

In some screenings, Egyptians clapped when the boab’s son murders his torturer. At the Odeon, Adel Imam’s cri de coeur lamenting Egypt’s squandered glory, won spontaneous applause. This sort of thing prompted commentators to remark that the film is a political phenomenon, uniting a record-breaking public in their distaste for the facts behind the fiction. Indeed, the film’s banning, if the authorities foolishly pursue it, will be owed not to gay matters but a more acceptable local form of buggery, the machinations of an autocratic regime, touchy as hell and twice as mean.

Yet while Alaa al-Aswany’s book was an ironic catalog of human weakness, the film did little more than explore the entertainment value of bad government. Turns out it’s gripping, but predictable and often absurd. The Hollywood Reporter’s verdict inadvertently mirrors western appraisals of Egypt’s broader plight: ‘Engrossing, highly watchable, old-fashioned melodrama’. Little do they know that melodrama is the average Egyptian’s bread and cheese.

Even historical dramas – secular and religious - are invariably reduced to it. What you do is, take the broad strokes of narrative action, and repeatedly underline the villain’s evil and the hero’s virtues, while building to a slow, sentimental crescendo. Then it’s Judgment Day and everyone antes up. The Yacoubian Building, stripped of the literary nuance that made its moralistic outcomes palatable, metes out justice thus: the gay seducer is murdered, as is the fundamentalist and his tormentor. The rotten drug-dealer/businessman is trapped in the web of corruption that spawned him. The young lovely who ends up in grandpa’s bed is happy to be there, and anyhow, he’s taking her to Paris. As usual, a simplistic good prevails, but makes hungry where most it satisfies. The audience files out smiling but shaking their heads.

A critic from the Tribeca Film Festival, Karina Longworth, knows how they feel. ‘[The film’s] narratives …resolve themselves in either punishment or correction for characters with whose desires we’ve been asked to sympathize…It’s hard not to feel cheated with the film is so clearly having its socio-progressive cake before not only eating it but smacking its frosting-flecked lips in sanctimonious delight.’

Mohammed Al-Assyouti, in the Al-Ahram Weekly takes the same point further. ‘The film seems to want it both ways – corruption is dead, long live corruption. For the new corrupt can at least boast of their tolerance and democratic values by allowing the [film’s release]…’.

Some of us will interpret The Yacoubian Building’s reversals as the artifice of a people inured to playing both ends of the ball court, but it is also a consequence of the form. Melodrama has no grey areas. It subtracts gravity from its subjects and individuality from its characters for the sake of contrast, and to place the viewer at a comfortable and entertaining distance.

Bassim Samra, who played the police cadet, told the Weekly something we already know. ‘Censorship kills art’. The unasked question is what part of our humanity dies with it? As the Yacoubian Building proves, a big budget and laudable material cannot mitigate the lack of capacity to probe the mechanisms– our own – that allow and foster exploitative injustice, much less undermine them. The film only points a finger, and presses a button triggering emotional release. If this is political phenomenon, then Egypt is in worse shape than we thought.

Egypt’s government is adamantly authoritarian, drawing its strength from a talent for manipulating human weakness, alongside a hubristic refusal to acknowledge its own. Only a diamond-edged subversive art can challenge it. Alas, Egypt is not alone in its predicament; there are no movements advancing values like creativity, exploring new ways of envisaging human direction and destiny, no more avant-gardes. Only religion, war, and the service industry.
‘Taboo smashing!’ the BBC proclaimed of the Yacoubian Building. Hardly. People left the film with their taboos tickled but firmly intact. Egyptians remain an audience in the spectacle of their country’s demise. They’ve yet to realize they are the actors.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.