February 2005 Volume #26 Issue 02
Token of Faith
As the makers of Baheb El-Cima battle it out with the state prosecutor, some Copts are leaning on the censors to yank the controversial film off the screens
By Réhab El-Bakry
Leila Elwi and Mahmoud Hemeida in the controversial
Baheb El-Cima about a Coptic Orthodox family in the 1960s.
IT STARTED OUT as a simple narrative of the lives and times of an average Coptic Orthodox family during the 1960s designed to take a critical look at Egyptian society. But since its release in early June, Baheb El-Cima (I Love the Movies) has created the biggest stir within audiences and authorities in recent years. Its also managed to ruffle more than a few feathers among the Coptic community with the raging debate unfolding on the pages of newspapers, magazines and even in the courtrooms.
For those who missed the flick, the movie focuses on the life of a Coptic family members and its assimilation with the rest of society. But perhaps most importantly, the movie also addresses their individual relationships with God. The father, played by Mahmoud Hemeida, is an extremely conservative Coptic school councilor to whom everything in life is wrong and sinful. His relationship with God seems limited to fear of God as opposed to his love for Him.
Leila Elwi portrays the mother, a school principal who is religious and fears God, but is not quite as conservative as her husband. But her husband dictates how she, their young son and their daughter should behave. The latter is in her early teens and slightly overweight while the boy ultimately loves going to the movies no matter how vehemently his father objects to them or how sinful he thinks they are. The movie depicts the family as they muddle through the day-to-day troubles such as poverty, problems at work, temptations and their desire to please God.
I must say that I loved the movie. Although the directing was lackluster and certainly didnt live up to my expectations in terms of technique, the dialogue was wonderfully real and the acting was second to none, particularly the performances delivered by Hemeida and Elwi.
Audience curiosity, naturally, was piqued by the fact that the protagonists were a Coptic family, something that is extremely rare in Egyptian movies. For the most part, Egyptian Christians have been portrayed as secondary characters, filling the role of the loyal best friend or the longtime neighbor. Theyre presented as flawless, idealized characters whose significance to the plot is generally defined in relation to the Muslim main characters. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the fact that screenwriters have tended to define their characters primarily in terms of religion. Baheb El-Cima shattered cinematic tradition, casting the members of the Christian family as three-dimensional characters, complete with shortcomings. In this sense, the movie is undeniably a breakthrough.
But not everyone sees it in such a positive light. Many members of the Coptic community find the movie offensive and disrespectful to Christianity. One disgruntled Copt has even taken it as far as the courts: Naguib Guibril is suing the writer, director and producer of the movie for defamation of the faith. Another group of Christians appealed to the Egyptian censors to have the movie removed from theaters and banned.
Although the Copts with whom I spoke were more than happy to discuss the movie, few agreed to be quoted in an article. But across the board their most common objection is that the first movie about Copts in several decades should depict them as ultra-conservative. Most Egyptians lack awareness of the Christian faith as it is, they all claim, and the last thing the situation needs is to create a new set of stereotypes.
Their collective outrage is so strong that they claimed it would have been better if their portrayal on screen had remained limited to the token character.
Ive always believed that stereotypes were born out of ignorance. Lets just forget about stereotypes for a moment and look at Baheb El-Cima for what it is: a movie about one family and their struggle to find their way. Its a normal struggle. You could have just as easily replaced the Christian family with a Muslim one and kept the bulk of the events in the movie exactly the same and it would have worked. This is not about the factors that divide us as Christians and Muslims, it is what unites us as Egyptians. I personally see the movie as symbolic of our struggles with change as a society the father being the old-fashioned Egyptian whos trying to stop society from changing, the young son, the symbol of a future bound to be very different from the past. The mother is actually the majority of us trying to find the magic balance between holding onto traditions and accepting change.
Would it have been wiser to portray the family as Muslim? Perhaps it would have avoided the undue fuss. But to my mind it wouldnt have made any difference nor should it to the majority of the people. Focusing on a Christian family helped break an invisible glass ceiling that existed and for that, I applaud the creators of this movie. While I understand fearing the perpetuation of religious stereotypes, the solution to this is to open discussion and not just accept them as a fact of life. The movie may not have accomplished this in the most idealistic of ways, but it did manage to generate discussion, which is a very good first step. If nothing more, it got us to take a closer look at ourselves, to look analytically at our lives and our society. et