Al-Ahram Weekly Online               21 - 27 April 2005 Issue No. 739 Features

Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Love, betrayal and monotheism

Nefertiti is about to be resurrected, writes Gamal Nkrumah, and together with the Egyptian Media Production City, producer John Heyman holds the key

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(Left) producer John Heyman; the head of history's most beautiful queen Nefertiti

It all began with an indescribably beautiful woman falling for a chivalrous and powerfully-built beau. But everything went so horribly wrong so soon. She was to be betrothed to another -- a poet, the proverbial philosopher-king. (He was unique among the Pharaohs of Egypt -- the man credited with introducing the very notion of monotheism to the world. A pathetically forlorn figure, he set out to destroy all traces of the religion of his ancestors. He moved the country's capital, made his favourite queen his equal and systematically razed the temples of the fearful gods -- to the consternation of the hitherto powerful priesthood).

An almost impossible task lay ahead for Nefertiti, for her dashing paramour was none other than the Pharaoh's own commander-in-chief. The king, not quite as physically appealing as the head of his army, may have had big ideas of his own. But, so much to Nefertiti's distaste, perhaps, he was not the least interested in military matters.

Many of the kings of the 18th Dynasty of ancient Egypt were most remarkable, but Akhenaton was arguably the most remarkable of them all. Branded as the heretical king of antiquity, he was much maligned after his death. This is the tale that Ahmed Othman, the Egyptian-born London-based writer, spun. And a top Hollywood producer and owner of the worldwide distribution company -- Black Rain, Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Star Treck (Paramount); Greystoke, The Legend of Tarzan (Warner); Home Alone, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Fox); The Trail of the Pink Panther (MGM); and The Odessa File (Columbia) -- was ready to buy the idea.

Based on Othman's controversial best-seller Moses and Akhenaten, this is to be the latest of John Heyman's projects. The characters are time-tested stereotypes, hot box-office attractions, sexy, larger-than-life, with a fighting spirit and an intellect to match. And there is plenty of political intrigue and romantic escapades to spice up the plot. This new film promises to be a blockbuster of huge proportions.

It is also the movie that may finally put the Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC) on the map of international cinema production. Since its inauguration some 10 years ago, many have described the multi-million dollar project as a "white elephant" incapable of drawing international film production -- such as the Moroccan's have -- and remaining basically confined to limited budget local production.

While on holiday in Cyprus, Heyman decided to embark on a historical detour to Egypt to inspect the facilities at the EMPC, to discuss production options for the film, Nefertiti, and to enjoy. Nor was he disappointed with the EMPC's infrastructure and state-of-the-art facilities, after all.

"It's fun. It's big and it's a statement," Heyman told Al- Ahram Weekly. "It's a wonderful exercise in roots," he chuckled. With a lined brow, the septuagenarian looks more severe than avuncular. However, it is obvious that he has a genius for box-office hits. Nefertiti was firmly ensconced in popular mythology -- not only in Egypt, but around the world. She is upheld as the most beautiful woman in history, and her glamorous depiction is bound to prove profitable.

As Heyman sits down and begins telling the story of Nefertiti, some of the old fire can be heard crackling again. All things considered, in fact, the viewer is compelled to ponder Nefertiti's relevance to contemporary questions. "This is a deep movie," Heyman noted. He had first read the script on a flight from London to New York, he recounts. No sooner did he land in JFK international airport, New York, than he phoned scriptwriter Michael Austin to tell him he was won over: "Nefertiti was no loser."

The secret of the contemporary world's fascination with Akhenaten was that he rejected virtually every ancient Egyptian tradition. He worshipped the god that had no image, that could not be depicted in stone. Aten, as Akhenaten called his god, was the creative force of the universe and as such was symbolised by the sun disc with rays radiating outward. Aten was not the sun, which was merely the symbol of divine energy, might and power.

Akhenaten had so angered the priesthood in Thebes, the traditional capital of ancient Egypt, that he had to relocate to his own capital. In the fourth year of his reign, Akhenaten gathered his courtiers and moved 370km north of Luxor, where he found the perfect piece of land; nobody claimed it, and the peasants who lived there owed allegiance to no particular god. The cliff-encircled plain was soon transformed into a most elegant city with sumptuous palaces, impressive temples and broad boulevards. And he called his new capital Akhetaten -- The Horizon of Aten.

Akhenaten was christened Amenhotep, the Beloved of Amun, chief god of Thebes, when he ascended the Egyptian throne. He promptly proceeded to change his name to Akhenaten in the fourth year of his reign. And he had, if not a revulsion towards the pagan priesthood, then a fear of them and their devotion to their heathen religion. He was the first of the monotheists. For a subject to publicly admit his adherence to the old faith would have cast doubt on his allegiance to the Amarna monarch.

Akhenaten also discarded the rigid art forms of his forefathers. His artists experimented with romanticism and expressionism. The famous bust of Nefertiti and the funerary regalia of Tutankhamun are testament to the beauty of the art of the Amarna period. Akhenaten's artists were given free reign while he was in power. And he too recited poetry in honour of the new god. In exile, he composed the sad, sweet songs of home, perhaps forerunners of the Psalms.

The film is conceived of more as a guide to Nefertiti's inner life than as an exploration of a lost city. "People are fascinated by conflict. The script is focussed on conflict -- a battle of wills, a conflict of interests and conflicts of the mind," Othman noted. In death Akhenaten has achieved what he failed to achieve in life. His reign was marked by intrigue and espionage, as the Amarna letters clearly indicate. But the reverie of high politics and diplomatic play was suffused with the melancholy of private grief and unrequited love. Austin, who collaborated with Othman to produce the script in an attempt to construct the characters in the spirit of their times, is eager to highlight the historical importance not only of the characters but the period.

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QUEEN ON SCREEN: The royal couple, Akhenaten and his Queen Nefertiti, resplendent in their distinctive regalia and unique physiognomy, perform in dignified obeisance an act of adoration to the Aten -- the one god they worshipped. Aten was represented as a sun-disc with bountiful rays that dominate the scene.

Historians credit Akhenaten with being the first recorded man in history to initiate a monotheistic religion. His legacy, in the words of writer Ahmed Othman, whose controversial best-seller Moses and Akhenaten is the basis of the new Hollywood mega-production, Nefertiti, soon to be filmed on location at the Egyptian Media Production City, lingers on in the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

"The spiritual and cultural roots of Western civilisation are found in Egypt. People in Egypt do not always understand why tourists visit the country, why they find it so fascinating," Othman points out. "It is because they are returning to their cultural and spiritual roots. Their visits are actually pilgrimages," he explains. "In Egypt we come to the roots of our common cultural heritage. Egypt brings us all together. Books," he added, "have a limited mass impact. Films are different. The appeal of film is on an entirely different scale."

Othman begins poring over a pile of computer printouts. After picking up a call on his mobile phone, he glances at his watch. "Akhenaten's trajectory demonstrates an unswerving determination to defend one's beliefs. Egypt was the original Holy Land," he stresses. "In the fourth century AD, Palestine was arbitrarily chosen as a new, make-believe Holy Land. It was a deliberate political shift."

And be that as it may, it was in Thebes that Horemheb's iron fist began to show, following Akhenaten's exile to the Sinai wilderness. Horemheb's velvet glove was all very well in itself, but the iron hand inside was considerably stronger and nastier than Nefertiti could imagine. He murdered Tutankhamun, her son, and the scales fell off her eyes: she now saw him the way he was -- a ruthless and power-hungry despot.

The queen was caught up in political corruption of the highest order. Tutankhamun's death fuelled a residual anger that only revenge could appease. The film capitalises on this cycle of abuse and rage. But all's well that ends well. They planned to marry, but this treacherous murder cuts across any permanent liaison. She flees the Nile Valley and ends up in the desolate wastes of Sinai, where her husband went into hiding. And in the utter desolation of the desert, Akhenaten declares his unfettered love.

Before he surveyed the facilities at the EMPC, Heyman was concerned that Egypt might not have the necessary technical expertise to handle a film of such a scale. He also feared that red tape might ruin his venture. "I was terribly concerned. What the Americans have, nobody else has. They are the only people who can afford to make a movie of that scale and nature," he shrugged his shoulders and pulled a face. "They command 70 per cent of the box office throughout the world," he noted. "These days they don't shoot in studios except for TV. The old studios were cumbersome and the infrastructure huge and ungainly. But I was very impressed with the facilities at the Sixth of October City. We're in the business of illusion," he went on, "and the Media City won't let our imagination down. The mobility and convenience of its facilities are very seductive. It has something of the compact nature of old studios. I could even smell the atmosphere of the big screen."

"Akhenaten was wronged in ancient times," Othman, who is involved in the production as a historical advisor, explains. "His name was erased from king lists, his image and reputation tarnished. In modern times, too, he was accused of preposterous and unqualified outrages -- heresy and homosexuality. He is sometimes depicted as a sun-worshipper and called the False Prophet of Egypt," he went on, adding that Austin is currently busy "sexing up" the script, and that he is working with him to ensure historical accuracy. "Hollywood often changes historical facts. Hollywood concentrates on action. Action is the selling point. We need a delicate balance of action, physical conflict, and intellectual or philosophical conflict. And we have a message: we all share a common cultural heritage, and the roots of our monotheistic faiths are to be found in Egypt, in Akhenaten's creed."

Others concur. "The film is played out against the backdrop of the so-called clash of civilisations," Nabil Othman, former State Information Service (SIS) chairman and currently the head of international relations at the EMPC told the Weekly. "The film proves that Western and Eastern cultures have the same roots. Akhenaten was the first man in recorded history to worship one god. He instituted a monotheistic doctrine as the state religion."

But this does not prevent the story from retaining all the attributes of a box-office hit: the private melancholy of a failed marriage, the romantic fetishisation of ruin and solitude, the melodrama of unrequited love, the pomp and ceremony of royalty, and the rage of revenge. It demonstrates the collective yearning for the divine and the bittersweet recognition of spiritual lack among the followers of all monotheistic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And the film's biggest star of all, Egypt, is as old as art itself.

The EMPC has the most advanced digital film editing technologies in the Middle East, Othman goes on to say; its printing facilities are unparalleled throughout the region. The cameras, for example, are Arriflex 535 Bs, working at a three-shot speed. "Our outdoor shooting spaces are ideal for filming a movie like Nefertiti."

Indeed that part of Media City designated as the Pharaonic Area is perhaps the most beautiful. It covers some 165,000 sq m and is an exact replica of Tel Al-Amarna, the city built by Akhenaten as his new capital and destroyed after his death by the priests of the Amun Temple. It includes military barracks, an avenue of sphinxes and royal palaces.

"None of the Cleopatra movies were filmed in Egypt," Othman points out. "With Nefertiti, the producer was looking for authenticity, for historical accuracy. And the genuineness of the geographical settings was important.

The EMPC is especially designed to provide that much sought after authenticity." Othman stressed that the EMPC has an unmatched team of set decorators, set designers, painters and other craftsmen and technicians. He took Heyman to see the carpenters, painters and upholsters at work. "The EMPC even has its own power generators. And these pre-production facilities are the backbone of any film production. This visit by an internationally-acclaimed producer of the calibre of John Heyman is testament to the potential of the EMPC. This is a breakthrough. Up till now we've had no major international movie filmed in our studios. With Nefertiti we are finally and hopefully irrevocably breaking the barrier of fear that prevents people from working here."

"We have excellent dubbing and translating divisions. The EMPC has dubbed many Latin American productions before selling them to Arab, African and East Asian countries." In fact this lightening-speed tour of Media City was something of an eye-opener for Heyman. "The Media City is a free trade zone," Othman noted. "My main goal is that world cinema returns to Egypt. We want the standards set by Omar Sharif," he noted, recounting that Heyman met Egyptian actors like Hani Salama, Mona Zaki, Dalia El-Beheiri and Khaled El-Nabawi: "He met them because he wants Egyptian actors to play dynamic supporting roles in the movie." The lead roles in Nefertiti are reserved for Hollywood stars, yet, the careers of individual Egyptian actors notwithstanding, "this remains the greatest publicity exercise for Egypt."


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