Two Arab movies push the bounds of cultural candor

The teenage girl in a tank top and tiny shorts stands over her brother while he prays. "Are you sick?" she asks. "Did you fall on your head? You've become a [fundamentalist] now?"

The brother, only recently a devout Muslim, ignores her. She walks to the door of his bedroom. "Mom, dad, I just wanted to let you know your son's gone crazy!" she yells.

It's one of several scenes in "MaRock" that viewers in Morocco have found either needlessly offensive or refreshingly honest.

In Egypt, a big-budget movie with a star-studded cast is already causing a stir and it's not even in theaters yet. "The Yacoubian Building," due out later this month, exposes many uncomfortable truths facing Egypt today: Islamic extremism, official corruption, police brutality, and class and gender inequalities.

With internal and external pressure on the Arab world to liberalize, movies are becoming a key outlet of free expression and a format for examining evolving mores. Like activists, journalists, and bloggers who have been testing the boundaries, movie directors are also pushing the limits of openness and influence.

"Things are moving in the Arab world and people are becoming more and more aware of the importance and vitality of having freedom of expression, so cinema would definitely reflect this," says Cherif el-Shoubashi, the head of Cairo's International Film Festival.

Based on a best-selling book of the same name, "The Yacoubian Building" weaves together the narratives of several characters, including an Islamic militant, a corrupt businessman, and a gay journalist. It tells the story of contemporary Egypt and all its problems through the tenants of the Yacoubian Building, an actual structure in downtown Cairo. An elegant residence built in 1937 to house Cairo's bourgeois elite, the building has fallen into decay by the 1990s, when the film is set.

"It's far more frank and controversial than movies we have seen until now," says Egyptian critic Mary Ghadban. This was the movie's goal, the film's creators say. "This is not a simple love story, where you have your popcorn and coke and go home. This is a shocking movie. The film is saying 'wake up, there's something wrong,' " says Producer Emad el-Din Adeeb.

"When Egyptians see this film, they will have to reconsider their lives and how not to make the same mistakes again," says actress Youssra, who stars in the film and is so well known that she has dispensed with a last name. "We need to be shocked to realize how badly things are going backwards and how quickly things are going backwards."

While the film covers many taboo subjects, what's perhaps most surprising, film critics say, is that it passed Egypt's censorship unscathed. But Egypt's President of Censorship Ali Abou Shadi says he really liked the movie. "It's an important film," says Mr. Shadi. "It's critical of the government, extremism, homosexuality. We don't want to cover our eyes about this."

Nevertheless, in its uncensored state, Shadi and the film's creators agree, "The Yacoubian Building" may well offend and anger Egypt's government and public alike. Religious fundamentalists might complain about its portrayal of Islam, they say. Others might argue that it shows a bad image of Egypt. Some may be scandalized by the film's homosexuality.

Like "The Yacoubian Building," "MaRock" was given the green light by state censors. According to Karim Boukhary, a writer for a French-language weekly news magazine, this decision is part of Morocco's liberalization under the young King Mohammed VI and reflects "an official policy of the Moroccan government to tolerate a real margin of liberty in creative fields."

Abdelilah Benkirane, a member of parliament for the Islamist opposition Justice and Development Party, sees it differently. For him, the decision was taken by people who think that "to fight Islamism, young people have to be drenched in an atmosphere of debauchery."

"MaRock" director Leila Marrakchi, who now lives in France, says the film is based on her adolescence. "These are things that I lived or anecdotes that friends told me. The film isn't autobiographical, but it's personal. It's something I know."

The film chronicles the lives of rich Casablanca teenagers who drink alcohol, smoke hashish, and make out in cars. It breaks a whole list of cinemagraphic taboos. The heroine Rita refuses to fast during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, and has a relationship with a Jewish boy.

Well before the film came out in cinemas, it was already part of the ongoing debate between Morocco's secular and liberal forces and its Islamist groups. The film's supporters have championed it as evidence of growing freedom of speech.

"In Morocco in 2006 a lot of things happen that aren't talked about and that aren't shown, that may be contrary to Islamic laws and social conventions," says Mr. Boukhary. "We don't talk about these things because they're taboo, because we're afraid. This movie contributes to provoking a debate. And it's a justified and salutary debate."

But the film's detractors have criticized it for wounding and ridiculing Moroccan's religious feelings. "This film shocked the entire population," says Mr. Benkirane. "It doesn't deserve to be seen and shouldn't be authorized in a Muslim country."

The Justice and Development Party has asked the government to ban the film. "There's a law in this country," says another member of parliament for the Islamist party, Abdel-Kater Amara. "There's a very clear law. We can't authorize films that attack the religion of Moroccans. They have to apply the law."

Ms. Marrakchi says the controversy over her film has taken on proportions she never expected. "My point wasn't to provoke or shock," she insists. "I wanted first of all to tell a story, knowing well that there were sensitive subjects." And, she says, "People should watch it before boycotting it. They should talk about the movie, not everything surrounding it."

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