Egypt’s Christian Copts, are under-represented in almost every aspect of Egyptian life and film is no exception. Egyptian cinema has been derelict in presenting them, estimated to be somewhere between 10-20 per cent of the population of around 80 million.
Films are not required to be educational or to depict the practices and beliefs of Christians in Egypt, but the lack of media representation has created a dangerous divide between Muslims and Christians, despite the tolerance of most moderate Muslims.
Deliberate media blackout
Many Copts know the intricate details of Islamic faith because of television programmes, films, radio or daily life where Islamic culture pervades. In contrast few Muslims, however moderate or educated they may be, know much about the Christian faith or practices as a result of a deliberate media blackout.
The myths surrounding Christians include priests performing black magic and warnings instructing children not to eat with Christians because they make the sign of the cross over their food.
A handful of films have acknowledged the existence of Christians as part of Egyptian society and even fewer have presented Copts convincingly. Three films in recent times that have represented Christians in a relatively significant manner are: Hassan and Morcos (2008), Wahed Sifr (One-Nil, 2009) and Baheb El Seema (I Love Cinema, 2004). Other films such as Felm Hendy (2003), Felm Thaqafy (2000) or even Omaret Yacoubian (Yacoubian Building, 2006) have either just barely acknowledged the existence of Copts in passing or have been too unbelievable to treat with any degree of seriousness.
Suspicion not without basis
In films today all characters are assumed to be Muslim unless otherwise stated and usually it isn’t otherwise stated. This lack of representation of Copts gives rise to the suspicion that whenever Copts are not ignored, they are portrayed negatively. The suspicion is not without basis.
In a panel held regarding religious censorship before the release of Wahed Sifr, Nagy Fawzy, a professor in criticism, pointed to the history of the film, El Sheikh Hassan. “History tells us that in 1952 Hussein Sidky produced and directed a movie called Lailet El Qadr,” says Fawzy. “He made a mistaken comparison between the faiths and attributed corruption, immoral sexuality, drunkenness and so on, as part of the Christian faith. Sidky managed to show the movie for a few days before it was taken down. After the revolution, he tried once more but this time it was closed following orders from President Mohamed Naguib. In 1954 he tried to fool people by renaming the movie El Sheikh Hassan, but that failed as well. It was the intellectuals who opposed this, rather than religious personalities,” maintains Fawzy. Today the movie is still being shown on satellite channels.
Films like Shafiqa El Qebteya (1962), and El Raheba (1965) that centre on Christian characters have not done better at creating authentic impressions as to what Christians are like. Shafiqa El Qebteya is about the demise of a belly dancer/prostitute and El Raheba is about a woman who became a nun after the failure of a love affair. In Wahed Sifr, the depiction of the Christian characters was that of an adulteress and a drunkard. Copts have not found positive portrayal in most of Egypt’s film history with rare exceptions such as Felm Hendy.
Tolerance in abundance
In the past, the divide between Muslims and Christians was not as big as it is today as tolerance was in abundance. People did not suspect that subliminal messages in the media aimed to depict Christians in a poor light, nor did it matter what the character’s religion was. Today’s films are under much closer scrutiny.
Scenes that include a Coptic character are generally not believable to the average Christian living in Egypt. This is due to the choice of words, ideas and the manner of speech of the characters that deviate from reality. One example is the priest’s sermon in Egyptian actor Adel Imam’s film El Nom Fel Assal (1996), where the priest used language and mannerisms that are closer to a Muslim sheikh.
The most grounded and authentic depiction of Christians was in Baheb El Seema. Osama Fawzi’s philosophical comedy-drama is arguably the most people have seen of Christians on screen. Set in the predominantly Christian district of Shobra in the sixties, the movie deals with a plethora of issues, the most prominent of which is man’s relationship to God. The questions about whether to fear or love God were tackled very well through the character played by Mahmoud Hemaida. But Baheb El Seema wasn't specifically about Christians; it was about the strained relationship of fear people had with God. If all the names and events in Baheb El Seema were changed to Islamic names and events, the film's message wouldn't have been affected. It seems as though it were easier for Fawzi to speak about philosophical issues through Christian characters, where there is more freedom to discuss God.
Wahed Sifr on the other hand was set in modern-day Egypt. Two of the main characters are Christian with some screen time dedicated to their issues. The film consisted of various stories all centered on the day when Egypt was playing Cameroon in the final of the African cup. Egyptian actor Khaled Abol Nagga plays the role of a television presenter who is constantly drunk and in a relationship with Niveen, played by Egyptian actress Elham Shahin. Niveen is a divorcee trying to obtain a permit from the church to remarry. While other characters were given a proper build-up, Elham Shahin’s character was not explored at all. The film delved directly into the complex problem of the character without giving the viewers time to understand who the character was. It went on to present a conversion to Islam as the immediate form of salvation for a woman seeking to remarry.
Hassan and Morcos could ironically be the most successful movie depicting the Christian minority. The film is a dark comedy that did not grow fully into its potential black. Egyptian star Adel Imam plays a priest whose teachings make him a target for extremists. Internationally- renowned actor Omar Sharif plays Imam’s Muslim counterpart, whose life is also under threat. In order to protect them, the government devises a plan to disguise Imam as a Muslim and Sharif as a Christian.
The movie is not elegant, insisting on delivering messages through pounding dramatic effect and repetition. The heavy symbols make the movie drift far from reality but in a sense reflect it. The film contained references to unvoiced opinions held by Christian and Muslim extremists which did ring true.
Hassan and Morcos escaped criticism partly capitalising on Imam and Sharif’s popularity, and partly due to how cleverly submerged the issues were within the plot. Additionally, Imam met with Pope Shenouda III for his blessing and advertised the fact even before the film was made.
Tension between the two faiths
It is sad to think that comedy is the best and most acceptable depiction Egyptian cinema has to offer in representing over 10 million of Egypt’s population in a period of 50 years. Even the best portrayal wasted an opportunity to address the real problems faced by Copts in Egypt, by trying to have an inaccurately-balanced view. Muslims and Christians in Egypt were shown to have the same problems equally, which marginalised Coptic issues and more importantly did not reflect reality. The film not only failed to bring out into the open all the real prejudices that exist, but also held the minority equally responsible for the tension between the two faiths.
Although both Wahed Sifr and Baheb El Seema can be counted amongst the best movies in Egypt’s recent history, they both came under heavy criticism from the Coptic community. In Baheb El Seema, Christians were overwhelmed when they saw so many Christian characters on screen. The characters were nothing out of the ordinary but Christians were slighted by their flaws, imperfections and deviations from formal Christian teachings.
For Wahed Sifr, the expose on the problem of divorce and remarriage in the Christian church, together with the alternative of converting to Islam, was found highly offensive to the Christian community.
Most Coptic characters of interest depicted in film and television are women. This holds true whether in Wahed Sifr, El Raheba or Shafiqa El Qebteya. The films Leqaah Honaak (1976) and El Khoroug (2011) and the television series Awan el Ward (2000) all depict a Christian woman in a relationship or falling in love with a Muslim man. A Christian woman marrying a Muslim man is accepted by Muslims but not by Christians. The attempt to normalise this problem through the media has angered many Christians in recent times. Seldom has there been a story where a Christian man has fallen in love with a Muslim woman, even though this sort of situation is common in everyday life.
In a discussion film critic Tarek El Shenawy once explained that on the issue of Christian apprehension towards Wahed Sifr , Christian Copts have been absent almost entirely from Egyptian drama for around 50 years or more. Copts have rarely been portrayed accurately in Egyptian drama or art and are usually sidelined or portrayed negatively. That is why there continues to be a sense of apprehension whenever Coptic issues are raised in film. If Christians were portrayed more consistently, they may stop feeling suspicious that they will always be portrayed negatively and more importantly, help eliminate the dangerous divide. But it might not be so easy making movies about Christians.
In a recent article published by scriptwriter/director Amr Salama on 10 January 2011, he relates the story of how his latest endeavour Lamo Akhza (I beg your pardon) was turned down by the censorship bureau after having spent a year writing the script. It was about a Christian boy who joins a public school and is mistaken for a Muslim. The young boy feels under pressure to play along and conceal the fact that he is Christian.
Excuses for rejection came in all flavours: trying to evade hurting the Christian minority’s feelings; problems like these don’t exist; not everything that happens should be shown on screen; and the typical favourite ‘damaging Egypt’s reputation’.
Lamo Akhza wasn’t the only script to be turned down. Hisham Essawy’s film El Khoroug is also currently banned. This is a story of a Christian girl and Muslim boy who fall in love. The boy attempts to leave Egypt in order to fulfill the dreams he cannot achieve here.
Damaging Egypt’s reputation
Accusations of ‘damaging Egypt’s reputation’ are the modern-day justification that oppressors use as an excuse to ban something they don’t like. Indeed, it is the sidelining of Coptic issues that is actually causing the most damage to Egypt itself, rather than its reputation. The more Copts are sidelined, the more their issues will become sensitive and the more censorship will eject scripts, even if they send out a positive message.
In effect, when no works are produced addressing Coptic problems, what ends up being censored are the problems themselves. Copts and their real issues remain obscure. The most prominent are: poor representation in the government, laws that make it difficult to build churches, discrimination due to cultural shifts in society’s thinking, continuous acts of violence against Copts without reprimand and the general inequality imposed by the government. Most of these have not been hinted at by any of the films, old or new.
It is safe to say that in Egypt the discussion of problems faced by Copts is what is truly censored in aspects of daily life - not only in film.