Fighting to tell a new story in a world that wants fairy tales

Filmmaker talks about public censorship and Hollywood’s lethargy

Don M. Burrows

Arab cinema is facing the same intellectual challenges dogging American theater: a wave of fundamentalism that undermines the free thought and expression that has made film a cutting-edge art form.

That, at least, is Yousri Nasrallah’s opinion. Nasrallah is an Egyptian filmmaker whose 1993 movie “Mercedes” will kick off the Cinema and Society in the Arab World Conference this weekend at the Walker Art Center.

“Mercedes” reflects a time in which the Eastern communist bloc had fallen and truisms had begun to crumble. Noubi, a platinum-blond outcast, wanders through the layers of Egyptian society and its underworld. Surreal as a 1940s film noir, the film features comedic satire while exploring issues such as homosexuality, religion and the geopolitical dynamic of its time.

Several recent films have tried to tackle similarly controversial themes, Nasrallah said. And the reaction by some of the Egyptian population sounds remarkably similar to those here who protested movies such as “Dogma” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

“We’re not talking about censorship,” Nasrallah said. “We’re talking about a sort of public censorship; the audience making a censorship, protesting against films. All these films passed state censorship but attempts were made to block them, either by Islamists or by Christian fundamentalists.”

Over the years, people manipulated by fundamentalism have been successful in torpedoing controversial films across the globe, Nasrallah noted, and this same challenge faces filmmakers in the Arab world.

In fact, Nasrallah said he was accosted by a Christian (Nasrallah was raised Christian himself) who was offended that the Christian family profiled in “Mercedes” wasn’t morally upstanding. When he showed the film in San Francisco, he was greeted with a similar attitude.

The gay community did not like the way he had portrayed gay people in the film, either.

“They didn’t like the locations where the gay characters met. And I said, ‘But this is the way it happens,’ ” he said. “And they said it has nothing to do with that. You don’t have to show it to a non-gay audience.”

Nasrallah once was quoted as saying disobedience was “the most beautiful feeling of which the human soul is capable,” and he said his films encapsulate that ethic. At heart, disobedience is about nonconformity, about questioning a social system and the attempts to make one comply with it.

That is fueled by free thought – once the benchmark of avant-garde film – the fate of which Nasrallah both fears for and finds hope in. Even several politically-charged Hollywood films seem to demonstrate that filmmakers are keen to the anti-intellectual trend enveloping politics worldwide, he said.

“It’s obviously a sign of people seeing that there is a huge crisis and something needs to be done about it,” he said.

But primarily, the criterion for good film in the Arab world is the same as it is anywhere: The compelling telling of a unique story.

“I don’t think that I can do anything else but make films, and I try to tell stories,” he said. “The problems I have in telling stories are a way of resisting a kind of mentality that says, ‘Don’t tell it, I don’t want to hear any stories.’ Mainstream films don’t tell any story at all.”