Just as Cinema Zawya opened in Cairo with the aim to provide an outlet for alternative films, the film Halawet Rooh (Beauty of the Soul) was banned by the government for its sexual provocativeness. The government’s decision overturned that of the official censorship council, leading to the resignation of its director, Ahmed Awaad.
The latest incident is emblematic of the eternal vicissitudes of the world of cinema in the country, and of how difficult it is for Egypt to move forwards even in the cultural sphere. An attempt is being made by director and producer Marianne Khoury – niece and close collaborator for 10 years of the well-known director Youssef Chahine – in opening the first cinema for alternative films, Zawya, inside the historic Odeon in the nation’s capital.
Khoury told ANSAmed that the Arabic name of the cinema ”can mean different things. In this case it means seeing things from a different angle. This is an idea that we have been working on for many years, that of offering the Egyptian public – our target audience – foreign films translated into Arabic and Egyptian films that never get screened in large cinemas, thereby creating a parallel market to the existing commercial one.”
Most of the cinema-goers are young, and the ticket price is half that of most cinemas. The cafe on the pedestrian-only street behind the cinema also costs half what others do. In addition to a series of retrospectives, Zawya takes some of the films into schools for special screenings – such as Haifa Mansour’s debut film ‘Wadjda’, which was the first feature-length film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. Like any other film in Egypt, every one shown in the cinema must pass muster in the eyes of the censorship board, Khoury noted.
”The cinema hall doesn’t have as tough of a time as other cinemas, since for the most part it only screens the films once and is a single place in the entire country,” said film director Ahmed Awaad, who resigned as head of the censorship board after Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab decided to ban Sameh Abdel Aziz’s film ‘Halawet Rooh’. Inspired by Giuseppe Tornatore’s ‘Malena’ and starring Lebanon’s Haifa Wehbe, the ‘adults-only’ film was deemed too sexually provocative and a ”danger to the young” by the National Council for Childhood. Awaad said that he had ”chosen to resign out of respect for my principles. The government overruled the decision of an independent body. I will now go back to film-making and teaching at Cairo’s Art Academy.”