CAIRO: Director Hany Fawzy’s “Family Secrets,” Egypt’s first film about homosexuality, has hit a sensitive nerve with censors in the Muslim country where the topic is taboo. “Asrar Aa’leya,” written by first-timer Mohammad Abdel-Qader, contains nothing explicitly sexual.
But the censors have objected to several scenes and want them deleted, said Fawzy, himself a well-known script writer taking his first turn at being a director.
The film follows Marwan (Mohammad Mahran), a young man who wrestles with his inner demons after coming out of the closet.
Abdel-Qader said he was “inspired by a true story” of a young man caught between a domineering mother and a father who was absent during most of his formative years.
And then there is Marwan’s older brother, who rapes him after being sexually abused as a child by the family chauffeur.
In the end, after going from therapist to therapist, Marwan seems to succeed in shaking off his homosexual tendencies but finds he is uncomfortable with his new self.
The film can in no way be described as advancing a gay agenda, and could even be seen as negative, as it treats homosexuality as a disease that can be cured.
Yet the censors want changes, some pivotal to the plot.
“The censor board wants 13 scenes to be cut, one which is crucial to the story and without which the film would lose some of its artistic value,” Fawzy told AFP.
In it, Marwan “confesses to his sister that he is a homosexual,” while in another “he accuses his father of being responsible for his sexual orientation,” says Fawzy.
Ahmad Awad, head of the censor board, told AFP at the Alexandria Film Festival last month that “Family Secrets” would suffer no censorship just because it is talking of homosexuality, “but some changes have been requested in certain scenes.”
In Egypt, all screenplays must be submitted to the board, which reads them and makes suggestions.
After the first version is produced, it returns to the panel which says which scenes must be cut, especially those showing “indecent behaviour.”
Critics were invited to a private screening of “Family Secrets” and gave mixed reviews. Some praised its high standards and others suggested minor alterations, but no one was shocked by it or felt there was any reason to cut scenes.
Indeed, a movie about gay relationships would hardly raise an eyebrow in Western cinemas, but producer Ehad Khalil says “Family Secrets” would find critics even there as “homosexuality for them is just another tendency.”
“But at the same time, Egyptian society will frown on this film, accusing it of promoting homosexuality,” he said.
While “Family Secrets” is the first Egyptian film with homosexuality as its theme, some previous ones have touched on the subject, such as “The Yacoubian Building,” a 2006 blockbuster based on Alaa al-Aswany’s best-selling novel of the same name.
One of its protagonists, Hatim Rasheed, is fairly open about his sexual orientation in a society that either looks the other way or openly condemns such behaviour.
The Washington-based Pew Research Center published in June the results of a survey of some 39 countries in which respondents were asked the question, “Should society accept homosexuality?”
Egypt was nearly at the bottom, with only 3 percent responding “yes.”
Both Islam and the Coptic Christian church, which represents up to 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people, forbid homosexuality, labeling gays as “deviants.”
“In poorer countries with high levels of religiosity, few believe homosexuality should be accepted by society,” Pew wrote of the poll.
In Egypt, as in the wider Arab world, the topic is generally taboo, and most gays meet through social networks or in gay-friendly but discreet bars.
But while homosexual practices are not expressly forbidden under Egyptian law, people can often face questioning and even arrest for “indecent behaviour.”
One such case hit the headlines in 2001, when 52 men were arrested on a party boat on the Nile River in Cairo. Twenty-three of them were jailed for between one and five years for “debauchery.”
In the end, “Family Secrets” is a tragic story, reflecting society’s generally unwelcoming attitude.
When Marwan goes to his first psychiatrist, he is treated with contempt. The second tells him he is struggling with extended adolescence and that his urges will eventually fade away.
The third advises him to move to a country where gays are accepted.
Then there’s the last one. He tells Marwan it’s all a matter of willpower, and that if he is treated he can choose to be heterosexual.