There are many secrets in Family Secrets by Hani Fawzy (2013), but the one that perturbed me most is the mystery surrounding the hair of the protagonist’s mother, which appears as a bob in some scenes and shoulder-length in others.
The film is also about — gasp — homosexuality, a big taboo in Egyptian cinema and society. Family Secrets doesn’t so much tackle it head on as poke at it with a stick.
The film’s hero, the son of the woman with the mystery hair, is Marawan (Mohamed Mahran), a troubled young man from a troubled home who works out his pent-up angst by spending much of the film ripping up bits of tissue in a peculiar manner.
We first encounter Marawan sitting in someone’s living room, ripping up tissue expectantly. A man enters the room in Islamic garb.
“Peace be upon you,” he says.
Marawan raises an eyebrow archly. The man refuses to look him in the eye before dropping the bombshell.
“It’s enough! Don’t drag me into your vice any more!” the man, Hazem, exclaims. He has just come back from performing Omra in Saudi Arabia and wants nothing more to do with the heartbroken Marawan who storms out and rips up forests’ worth of tissue in his car.
How has this nice young man reached this point?
Marawan’s voiceover informs us that he was brought up with his domineering mother, goody-two-shoes sister and dopey brother. His father spent Marawan’s entire childhood in the United States, refusing to relocate his family there for fear that the Great Satan would ruin them morally. The irony. When not making her hair grow to different lengths, his mother dressed Marawan as a girl for part of his early life. In the absence of his father, a distant stranger he sees once a year, Marawan also formed an unnaturally close attachment to his mother. He has a volatile relationship with his brother.
As a result of the absence of a positive male influence in the household Marawan has turned into a human paper-shredding machine as well as a homosexual.
There is drama early on when Marawan has to have an operation for stomach problems and he confesses to his sister Omneyya that he can’t bear the thought of going under the knife, is terrified of anesthetic and, oh, has also never been attracted to girls.
Omneyya tells their mum who bristles with anger and shouts that it can’t be true. They decide to pop along to the doctor anyway and so begins Marawan’s epic journey through medical science. Each doctor has a varying approach. The first berates him for his effeminate manner and haircut (he has long hair of course), the second prescribes a load of medicine that kills his libido but also makes him sleepy. This doctor also advises him to look at mucky pictures of naked ladies online.
But the homosexuality persists. Marawan chats to men online in something we are meant to understand is a camp manner. He has various encounters with men. One is sweaty and grotesque. The other robs him. Poor Marawan retreats to his house and his troubled family and his bedroom with its posters of male Hollywood actors pinned up at jaunty angles. He collapses in tears on his prayer mat.
It’s time for him to go to university, and Marawan decides he must leave his high school troubles behind. He grows a terrible light moustache as a sign of his masculinity, a sort of talisman to ward off the gays, like garlic for vampires. He has obviously never heard of Freddie Mercury.
Around the same time he meets a new doctor, who tells him that the problem isn’t him, it’s the society around him, and that if he wants a solution he should get his university qualification and move to the West, where homosexuality isn’t considered an illness. Marawan also reveals that he was sexually abused as a child by a relative. But of course he was.
While taking an English course Marawan meets teacher Mazen. It’s love at first sight. Marawan cannot resist Mazen’s slightly overweight physique and high trouser waistband. They also have the same haircut, the Gay Haircut. The course ends, and Marawan sidles up to Mazen and gives him his phone number. While young Marawan is tapping his number into his teacher’s phone Mazen sniffs Marawan’s head loudly in a Hannibal Lector manner and we understand that he also is of the gay and harbors unnatural intentions.
The relationship between Marawan and Mazen is one of the few positive depictions of gay life in the film. They go to the cinema, have a laugh. Marawan strokes Mazen’s car air freshener admiringly and sensually and Mazen produces one as a gift for the delighted young man.
The relationship intensifies and we see the two Ms going upstairs at Mazen’s place. Then they come back downstairs again, Mazen resplendent in only his boxer shorts, Marawan looking dazed and unkempt. Mazen blows him a kiss, Marawan passes a mirror and looks into it and suddenly loud music blares out, the type of sadly descending notes you hear when you lose a level on a 1980s video game. It is the Gay Disaster music, and is played at regular intervals throughout the film to signify that Marawan has entered a homosexual danger zone. On this occasion we understand that Marawan has entered the ultimate homosexual danger zone: he has lain with Mazen in his bed.
Marawan is lost, disgusted with himself, he seeks recourse in religion, but the torment continues. Then, a miracle. Watching television one night he hears a doctor saying there is a cure for homosexuality. His bossy mother comes in and turns off the filth. In a daring scene showing both men and their gay haircuts in bed together, Marawan, his soulful blue eyes full of sadness, asks Mazen about this doctor. Mazen says he had friends who went to see him and never heard of them again, as he puts on his silky robe and buggers off, possibly to the bathroom, maybe to have a shit.
We meet said doctor who spouts some crap about a child’s failure to form a strong bond with the parent of the same sex being a factor in homosexuality and other medically unsound nonsense. None of this is challenged elsewhere in the film.
A turning point in Marawan’s life is when his father returns from the US. Things are tense between the parents, what with mum being a battle-axe and the director’s keen need to demonstrate the hitherto absence of a male influence in the house and the conflict that ensues when dad attempts to re-establish patriarchy.
Marawan, who is gradually being “cured” of the gayness thanks to his doctor, embarks on group therapy sessions in the doctor’s garden with other men, one of whom is ridiculously camp and might want to ask for his money back, the other strange and slightly pathetic. All are cartoonish characters.
Marawan arrives home late one evening and is confronted by his father asking where he’s been. Things quickly spin out of control and before we know it Marawan is shouting that he is SHAZ he is a DEVIANT and that when he went with guys HE WAS LOOKING FOR HIS ABSENT FATHER. His father is distraught. Then Marawan explodes another bomb, and reveals who was sexually abusing him. His mother crumples between them in some spectacularly bad acting while his father breaks shit in the house. He then takes Marawan in his arms saying, “My normal son is a deviant!”
The people I was in the cinema with clapped at this denouement, this act of reconciliation, or perhaps they were clapping at Marawan’s father’s facial hair. He has a solid and luxurious moustache because he is unabashedly heterosexual.
Things end much as you would expect them to. Mazen disappears from Marawan’s life, we see Marawan ripping the air freshener gifted to him by Mazen from his rearview mirror. Marawan bonds with his father, and there is a truly bizarre scene where we see father and son frolicking in a swimming pool, Marawan floating horizontally while his father holds him and looks down at him adoringly. Marawan at this point must be about 21 years old.
Marawan has managed to suppress his unnatural urges through writing, and is full of vim and vigor: we see him in a cafe on his own smiling at a courting couple in a manner which if we didn’t have the background, might induce us to alert the authorities. In another scene Marawan rips down his posters of attractive Hollywood actors joyfully. Omneyya happens to go past as he does this. The two share a laugh.
But it is a rocky road. The urges and temptations return along with the Gay Disaster music and Marawan loses a level. His smug doctor, who has clearly not heard the latest findings about homosexuality not being a disease, tells Marawan that sometimes he might lose his footing but that doesn’t mean he will fall right back down to the bottom of Mount Straight. No, he must keep going.
And that’s it. This daring film ends on that note, that being gay is an illness and a battle. Being a gay man in Egypt is indeed already a struggle without this fucking film and its tired old clichés, lurid misinformation, and badly played out melodrama to contend with.
At the film’s premier the media was given a press pack. It says that the film is based on a true story, but that the actor who plays Marawan never met the individual who inspired the story. I left wondering whether anyone involved in the making of this film has ever actually met a real, live gay person or, if they have, whether they are prepared to acknowledge that not all homosexual men in Egypt have Bahaa Sultan hairstyles, and not all of them are sexual abuse victims from troubled homes, and that it is possible for a gay man to be a normal, contented human being even if Egyptian society makes this difficult. One can only assume that the film had to perpetuate the prevailing myths in order to get past the censors, and lest it be accused of promoting an unsavory lifestyle. If that is the case, it would have been better off unmade, since artistically it is a humdrum offering that attempts to make up for what it lacks by dousing everything in a non-stop Rageh Dawoud soundtrack.