Citing “involuntary circumstances,” Zawya Cinema announced yesterday that Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident, which was set to screen as part of the 10th Panorama of the European Film lineup, is no longer part of the program.
The film is set before the January 2011 revolution, and centers on the aftermath of a woman’s murder that takes place in one of the rooms in Cairo’s Nile Hilton hotel. As the protagonist, police officer Nour Eddin (played by Fares Fares), follows the threads that lead to the culprit, the film sheds light on the wide networks of corruption within which the Egyptian police force operates, protecting the real criminals behind the murder.
It is also worth mentioning that Saleh shot his film in Casablanca, Morocco, after he failed to obtain a permit to film in Egypt. The Nile Hilton Incident premiered in the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017, where it won the Grand Jury Prize.
The film is inspired by the famous murder case of Lebanese diva Suzanne Tamim, who was murdered in her Dubai apartment in 2008. A former police officer, Mohsen al-Sokkary, was accused of murder after confessing he had been hired by Egyptian tycoon Hesham Talaat Moustafa to murder the singer in exchange for two million Egyptian pounds. Both accused parties were sentenced to death, before the Court of Cassation reduced the punishment to 25 years for Sokkary and 15 for Talaat Moustafa. After spending nine years in jail, Talaat Moustafa was released last June, pardoned by president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi upon Eid al-Fitr.
Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El Said, whose film In the Last Days of the City was withdrawn from the Cairo International Film Festival’s main competition lineup last year, said he thinks the reason The Nile Hilton Incident will not be screened in this year’s Panorama is likely to be intervention by censorship authorities. “It’s very sad that it’s 2017 and while the world around us opens up to new ideas that are freely discussed and engaged with everyday, in Egypt we’re still arguing about films being censored,” he told Mada Masr.
Yet what is even more frustrating, in Said’s point of view, is that the censors never announce the reasons behind their decisions, leaving the door open for endless speculation. “As a filmmaker in a similar situation, unable to show my film in my own country, I am of course angry,” he added. “I stand in total solidarity with anyone who has to deal with this irrationally oppressive system, which denies people their right to watch films and deprives filmmakers of the chance to share their work with their audience.”
When asked why he thinks censors might have denied The Nile Hilton Incident a screening permit, Said responded that the film portrays the police’s criminal behavior as part of a larger web of corruption, displaying its close ties to Egypt’s elite of rich and powerful businessmen. “It’s hard to put myself in a censor’s shoes, but I think these are themes they would definitely want to avoid shedding light on right now,” he said. “Simply, at this particular moment, the state is adamant on imposing a certain narrative, and is entirely intolerant of any alternative views that could challenge it.”
Malak Wasfy, an Egyptian journalist who watched the film in Paris, also believes censors’ disapproval is behind the decision not to screen the film, which she said she views as “one of the most honest cinematic portrayals of the Egyptian police structure, as it tackles corruption as a complete network rather than individual instances as often suggested in other works of film and TV.” She added, “Currently, when literary and artistic works that are much less bold in terms of their direct confrontation of the state are being censored, I think it’s rather expected that a sensitive film like this one would be censored as well.”
Meanwhile, Kinda Hassan, a Lebanese artist who also saw The Nile Hilton Incident in Paris, thinks that the film’s significance lies in the fact that “it doesn’t pose as a film with a specific political point of view, such as Mohamed Diab’s Clash (2016), for instance,” but is rather a regular action drama that depicts the psychological transformations undergone by its protagonist, a policeman who decides to rebel against the corrupt structure of the force he works for. “What makes it more problematic, I think, is that this regular policeman joins the January 25 protests in the end of the film,” she continued.
From a legal perspective, Mahmoud Othman, a lawyer from the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, also thinks it is not far-fetched to assume that the Censorship Board is behind Zawya’s cancellation of the screening, especially in light of increasing restrictions on artists over the recent period. He alluded to an article titled “The Cinema of Political Islam” by Egyptian journalist and former presidential media adviser Ahmed al-Moslimany published in Al-Masry Al-Youm on October 23, where he blames the state for not sufficiently intervening in the content of cinematic and television works, arguing that “the policies of soft power are more important than artistic conflicts.”
“Because the law and implementing regulations of the directorate leave the criteria for non-permissible films vague, censorship decisions are often made according to the law on the censorship of audio and visual works, which is loose enough to allow censors to deny permits based on their personal evaluations of the films,” he elaborated.
The only solution, he asserted, is a new law that seals all the backdoors often used to suppress artistic expression. “Until then, we need to rely on the Constitution, which, in Article 67, binds the state to promote art and protect its creators.”