Almost two years since the January 25 Revolution in Egypt, unrest remains vivid within the country. Under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, from whom hails President Mohamed Morsi, many have questions protections on freedom of expression in the arts and culture. The team behind the Egyptian feature film Al-Molhid (The Atheist) shared their experiences with Ahram Online.
"We are never pro-atheism," says Nader Seif El-Din, opening his conversation with Ahram Online. He insists the film project "has nothing to do with the revolution and does not challenge the ruling Islamist ideologies of Egypt today."
The story of Al-Molhid, currently in editing, dates back three years. "I first noticed this rise of atheism in Egypt way before the revolution and I wanted to investigate the matter," El-Din told Ahram Online.
The film depicts a young man who was born Muslim (a designation that cannot be changed) but started disbelieving Islam and all religions as he grew older. El-Din spent more than four months researching atheism. The story of the young atheist, played by Mohamed Abdel Aziz, also known as Zizo, is based on a number of cases El-Din investigated during the last years of Mubarak's regime. Yet El-Din admits that the script was re-edited after the revolution to fit the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The exact number of atheists in Egypt remains unknown. Religious freedom is a very sensitive issue while drastic measures have often been taken against those claim to be atheists, including fines and imprisonment. As an Islamic country, the state does not recognise atheists. Yet the Internet has been an open space for atheists in Egypt to meet and organise weekly assemblies, like Think Atheist website that has gathered hundreds of atheists in Egypt.
"I did write the script, but first went to Al-Azhar for guidance. I give thanks to the sheikh I met there, who helped me all the way through with clarifying the teachings of Islam, and some events that take place in the film, as you will see," says El-Din.
"It is only to highlight the fact that among young people, the thought of becoming an atheist has widely spread, since there are a lot of ridiculous notions of what's right and wrong claimed by those who call themselves Islamic scholars," says actor Mohamed Hisham, playing the guiding sheikh in the film.
Correcting the message
"I believe the dominance of fundamental and false Islamic messages spread by those who claim to be Islamic scholars has increased. Therefore I found it a must to continue with my film and help clear the image of my religion," El-Din describes. "No authority or school is powerful enough to either stop or correct them," he states.
"Al-Azhar, since we began working on this project, has been very supportive and not once has anyone from Al-Azhar ordered us to stop. All scholars we met and those who watched the film for approval said 'Bravo' and 'Please proceed,'" Hisham states.
According to El-Din, "Al-Azhar was pleased with Al-Molhid and encouraged us as the film discusses a major social problem we have today."
Last month, Al-Azhar board members gave their approval for the film. According to Al-Ahram Arabic, not a single shot of the film was objected to. Furthermore, the Censorship Committee of Egypt approved the film without any cuts, "making it the first uncut movie," Hisham jokes.
Hisham recalls screening Al-Molhid in front of the Censorship Committee along with director El-Din. "When we first went in, before the viewing, and met with the committee, I noticed a number of script pages being marked at the top corner of each page. I told Nader." El-Din interrupts: "Yes, Hisham said: 'It is over, the film will not pass,' but I calmed myself down and told him, 'Let's wait and see,'" El-Din remembers.
During the screening, the entire committee went silent and as the film came to an end, "They all greeted us and congratulated us. No cuts, no negative criticism, nothing," El-Din told Ahram Online.
Despite the approval of both Al-Azhar and the Censorship Committee, the film crew are still receiving threats. "We constantly receive attacks and death threats on our Facebook page, but nothing physical so far," Hisham confesses.
"People keep sending us hateful messages and there are those who have organised a campaign against us on Facebook too, but nothing more, and it does not scare us … We remain positive," El-Din says.
"What's funny is that both parties, Islamists and atheists, feel offended and share in those hateful messages equally," Hisham remarks with an ironic laugh.
According to the film crew, Yasmine Gamal, an actress in the film, has been also received messages from atheists. "One atheist keeps sending us messages demanding Yasmine's respect to atheists after she grouped atheists and con artists in one sentence in an interview … something that is absurd," El-Din recalls.
Starring in his first feature film, playing a molhid (atheist), Zizo, feels very proud. "I am delighted and determined as the rest of us working in this film," Zizo tells Ahram Online. Unlike his colleagues, Zizo has been attacked on the street. "Once a man with a beard came to me and advised me to stop the film, but I reasoned with him and told him to wait and see," he recalls.
Besides Al-Molhid, Zizo is also rehearsing for a play to be released soon. "I believe that the level of freedom in arts and culture has slightly increased following the revolution," he says.
The process of making Al-Molhid to the young talents involved is proof that the level of freedom has increased. Nonetheless, Hisham still believes there is "a long way to go" and "constant battles to fight." El-Din intervenes: "But this is a start and it is for us, the well-educated and culturally exposed, if I may, to create awareness. Thanks also to our producer, Adham Afifi, who never gave up on us."
Al-Molhid stars Mohamed Hisham, Mohamed Abdel Aziz (Zizo), Yasmine Gamal, Laila Ezz El-Arab, Sabry Abdel Moneim, Hassan Eid, and Ahmed Magdy.
Al-Molhid is scheduled to hit cinema theatres during the winter break in Egypt, though the exact release date remains to be decided.