Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Missing the Point

The Egyptian film Heen Maysara (حين ميسرة) was released on Eid last year. Since then, it’s been making headlines in the English-speaking blogosphere. Could this be due to the film’s popularity at the box-office? Perhaps people are intrigued by its look at the slums of Cairo? But no. The coverage is on the negative attention Heen Maysara has received. Because of one same-sex scene, the film has been condemned by Islamic scholars for “spreading homosexuality and promoting debauchery,” according to an Al Arabiya article. Critics points to a scene in which a lesbian character tries to seduce a female prostitute, culminating in a kiss. According to a professor of Islamic law quoted in the article, “This is the influence of immoral Western culture which controls the media.” He explained that movie sex scenes are sinful. (He also attributes lesbianism to a “Zionist conspiracy” — not a wise move if you want to be taken seriously.)

Homosexuality in Islam is a complex issue. Sexual morality is an even bigger, more complicated issue. While properly addressing these issues is difficult, criticizing a film for sexual content is easy. And in the case of Heen Maysara, it’s not even what the film is about.

If the trailer can be any judge of the film’s content, sex is hardly a main issue of the film. Lesbianism less so. Women appear to be secondary characters. While men argue, fight, and threaten each other (and women), women’s roles include looking upset, throwing themselves into men’s arms, and acting sexy. They also face quite a bit of abuse. Besides shots of women crying, screaming, and being slapped, there’s a disturbing clip of a woman being thrown violently on a bed by a group of men (see photo). It doesn’t take much to guess what that might be about.

I’ll admit: I haven’t seen more than the trailer, and my understanding of the Arabic dialogue goes as far a few phrases here and there. But it seems to me that there are bigger concerns than the scene that made scholars demand the prosecution of the director and female actors.

A quick search on the film reveals that its main issues are poverty, violence, and political corruption. A review by Hussein Shobokshi described the film as “one of the most significant films to emerge from the Arab film industry for years. It is a two hour thesis about the economic status of the society and its failure, and how part of society could transform into a time bomb that is ready to explode.” The Arab entertainment website Yallabina writes that the film “provides a vision of the poverty in the Egyptian society, and offers a humanitarian and politically daring story of the most important issues and crises of this category of people, who have their own culture and suffer from neglect by the government.”

It’s good to hear that the film is more than an action flick of car crashes, knife-waving men, and belly-dancing women. One viewer wrote that the film “makes us face a painful, sad reality that we live but do not sense.” I hope the depth and insight described apply to the portrayal of women, who don’t seem to fare too well in the trailer. And I’m waiting for the day scholars make headlines speaking out against poverty more loudly than they do calling for the censorship of movies.