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'Family Secrets': Poor melodrama falsely posing as daring work on homosexuality

Director Hany Fawzi's film Asrar Aa'eleya (Family Secrets), anticipated for its focus on a homosexual protagonist, fails to meet expectations and indeed does a disservice to its subject

Yasmine Zohdi, Sunday 23 Feb 2014
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Still from 'Family Secrets'
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Director Hany Fawzi’s Asrar Aa’eleya (Family Secrets) was much anticipated, more because of its subject matter than anything else. For the first time, an Egyptian movie would directly tackle homosexuality, a topic long avoided by filmmakers for the inevitable trouble it is guaranteed to cause with censorship bodies, and because homosexuality remains a sensitive issue in Egypt.

Previous Egyptian films had occasionally incorporated homosexual characters within their storylines. But most had been disappointing in their portrayals, and far from honest or realistic. Talk of battles with censors surrounding 'Family Secrets' further fueled speculation. It was a surprise to many when it passed and would in fact be showing in cinemas with an "Adults Only" tag.

However, after watching the film, it becomes understandable why censorship authorities would allow 'Family Secrets' to play in movie theatres across the country: 'Family Secrets' does not break the taboo, but in fact reasserts it.

Marwan (a debut performance by Mohamed Mahran) is a teenager from an Egyptian middle class family who struggles with questions regarding his sexuality amidst an unstable domestic life. His mother is a cold, unyielding, domineering woman, while his father lives and works abroad and is never present. He has a strained relationship with his older brother, who seems to pick fights with him for absolutely no reason. His only friend and confidant within the household is his sister, and she becomes the first person he trusts with his long-kept secret: that he is gay.

One of the film’s most glaring shortcomings — and there are many — is how Mahran is made to look and behave. Marwan is a walking stereotype. His hair is specially styled so it appears long and straight. He has a soft, faltering voice, and his looks are always timid and unsure. He makes effeminate gestures with his hands and behaves like a scared child when faced with a tough situation. He pants when he is made to carry heavy objects around the house, and grimaces in disgust when he is asked to fix the bathroom drain. Through it all, the acting is forced and ridiculously over the top. The depiction of the gay teenager, as a result, comes off as inconsolably shallow and naïve, because gays can have short hair, they can speak loudly and clearly, they can be physically strong, and yes, they can be masculine. Mannerisms are not what sexual orientation is essentially about.

The one accurate aspect about 'Family Secrets' is its representation of how society tends to view men who are not straight. Marwan’s family members — most of them, at least — are in denial. Psychiatrists view him as a person with a disease that should be treated. His teachers bully him, while religious sheikhs warn him of the blazing flames of hell. However, as the story progresses, the blame shifts from society towards Marwan’s parents: it is implied that his father’s absence, for instance, is partially responsible for why he turned out to be "like this." To reveal the other, more immediate reason, would spoil the film’s twist (although one could hardly call it so), which once again cements homosexuality as a "condition" with clear causes and an identifiable "cure."

In Arab societies, the word most often used to refer to homosexuals is shaz, which literally means "deviant." Needless to say, it is an offensive description, yet Marwan often uses it to describe himself. Even the one character in the film who objects to the use of the word, a psychiatrist, still treats Marwan a person with a disorder, and attempts to help him with it. At one point, several formerly gay men who had "recovered" gather in a circle under the supervision of their doctor and exchange success stories: “I’ve been engaged for three months now”; “It’s been six months since I’ve logged onto a chat room or a porn site." Throughout the film, Marwan is never encouraged to accept who he is; instead, it is always insisted that the homosexual is not really who he is, and that all he needs to do is find his way back to himself.

In a way, the film is saying that there is no such thing as homosexuality — that it’s an illusion. Or, more accurately, judging by the ones Marwan meets in 'Family Secrets,' gays do exist, but they are either leering, repulsive men, conniving thieves, or absolute creeps. However, if you are a decent boy like Marwan, you’re most likely just confused; go see a doctor and you’ll find out you’re not really gay. Even when Marwan, through regular circumstances, meets a slightly older man and falls for him, there is absolutely no trace of sincerity in the way the film deals with the encounter. The other man’s lustful looks are incredibly exaggerated, and the music heightens to an alarming pitch when he asks Marwan for his number. The whole scene becomes similar to that of a predator preparing to pounce on his prey on National Geographic.

Apart from its failures in addressing its core issue, the film is painfully lacking on the cinematic front. The plot is unfocused, the dialogue overflows with cringe-inducing clichés, the characters — with the possible exception of the mother — are flat, the music is intrusive and the acting is laughably histrionic, especially in the two scenes that are supposed to be the most climactic: Marwan’s "coming out" talk with his sister, and a later confrontation with his father. All of these factors conspire to make 'Family Secrets' largely reminiscent of a kitschy, poorly-executed 90s soap opera.

'Family Secrets' could have been a significant work, even with all its deficiencies. It could have derived value, at least, from being the first film to breach the walls around, and delve into, homosexuality in Egypt. It doesn't do any of that. Indeed, it cannot be claimed that a film is about homosexuality when the protagonist views his sexual orientation as a burdensome affliction that he eventually manages to deal with through the help of a doctor.

He is not gay, then: he is a confused teenager struggling through a phase. There’s nothing wrong with addressing that in a movie, of course, but then the film should not be marketed as one about homosexuality. What about all the men and women who have identified themselves as gay, who chose to embrace that, and who are therefore forced to lead double — or incomplete — lives because of the shackles society imposes on them? What about the conflict homosexuals go through daily in their attempts to reconcile their sexual orientation with their religious faith or their loyalty to their families? There are a multitude of questions to explore, and 'Family Secrets' poses and answers none.

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