Why was the presumed censorship of The Nile Hilton Incident met with silence from Egypt’s filmmakers?

ِEditor’s note: On Friday, police forces prevented a screening of The Nile Hilton Incident at Balcon Heliopolis, an alternative cultural venue, checking attendees’ identification and asking them to leave.

Earlier in November, the 10th Panorama of the European Film announced that Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident (2017) had been removed from its program, citing “involuntary circumstances.”

Filmgoers needed no further explanation. Everyone in Egypt has become aware that “involuntary circumstances” likely means the screening was rejected by the Censorship Board.

When a venue cancels a film screening, whether due to difficulties obtaining a copy, the available version being “unfit for display,” or disputes over rights with the filmmakers, the reason is usually clearly announced. If the censors intervene, however, the reasons remain unknown or ambiguous at best, since organizers prefer not to escalate the situation in the hope of preserving already tense relations with the board.  

News of the film’s tacit ban came as no surprise to many filmmakers and fans of alternative cinema in Egypt. Those who have seen the film, online or abroad, are fully aware that it delivers a direct, albeit superficial, critique of the Egyptian police, portraying them as a gang of corrupt, bribable individuals. Others who haven’t seen it, meanwhile, have grown accustomed to films being censored over the past three years, often based on nothing more than the personal preferences and impressions of state officials. Nothing is unexpected when it comes to Egyptian censorship authorities.

This normalization of news about censorship, which is often met with silent condemnation and reluctant acceptance, was evident in the comments under the Panorama’s announcement on Facebook: “Quite expected” was the most frequent contribution. Such an attitude stands in stark contrast to the virtual solidarity campaigns that rapidly brought supporters together to condemn similar acts of censorship in the pre-revolution era. What has changed, then?

In the late 1950s, author and screenwriter Naguib Mahfouz headed the department for the censorship of Arab films within the Censorship Board. In a testimony he wrote about his time there, published in Al-Fan Al-Sabea (The Seventh Art) magazine in 2000, Mahfouz describes an occasion on which he disapproved of the screening of a foreign film he considered to be offensive to Japan in Egyptian cinemas.

Although the film had obtained a screening license, this did not prevent Mahfouz from disagreeing with Mohamed Ali Nassef, the head of the directory at the time, insisting that the film should be banned, since Japan was an ally to Egypt in its conflict with the US. The issue reached President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who suspended screenings after the film had already been part of matinee programs in cinemas.

Of course, the case of The Nile Hilton Incident is very different. Viewers can now easily download the film, or wait to watch it on the multiple television channels administered and controlled by Gulf countries. So why was the suspension of screenings of both Saleh’s 2017 film, and the one criticized by Mahfouz over half a century ago, met with silence, despite the different historical circumstances, and the fact that The Nile Hilton Incident is an exciting thriller about a murder that takes place in Egypt?

Over the last year, Egyptian filmmakers have clashed with the Censorship Board over its obstinate refusal to grant Tamer El Said’s film, In the Last Days of the City (2016), the necessary screening permits. Although the trailer was shown in Egyptian cinemas almost a year ago, and despite the film’s inclusion in several important international film festivals, screenings are still not permitted in its country of origin. Independent producer and director Mohamed Hammad also faced similar troubles acquiring censorship approval for his movie Withered Green (2016), which eventually saw limited release. Both instances resulted in waves of solidarity campaigns that took place across different mediums and varied in size and effect.

The case of The Nile Hilton Incident is different, however. Although the director is of Egyptian origin, and despite the film’s events being largely inspired by the notorious case of Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim and Egyptian businessman Hesham Talaat Mostafa, the promotional material for the film, including the poster and trailer, left many with the impression that the film wasn’t really sincere in its depiction of Egypt. Moreover, social media posts praising the film and framing its director’s journey as an Egyptian’s success story abroad, akin to that of Ahmed Zewail, for example, were perceived as a tired reiteration of the old dream of escape from a crisis-ridden country to universal fame.

Such elements perpetuated a sense that the director doesn’t really belong to this place, and that his film does not — in process or as a final product — represent any of the diverse trends in contemporary Egyptian cinema, nor does it seem to struggle with the same conflicts or challenges. The impression that gradually sank in was that the film merely represents the safe crossing of its director to Hollywood. The film’s Cairo setting, although it is integral to the plot, seems secondary. The particularity of the characters’ local origin is treated lightly, and the actors’ accents are far removed from common Egyptian dialect.

Moreover, at no stage during filming did the filmmakers of The Nile Hilton Incident bother to tie themselves to a generation of Egyptian filmmakers that share with them similar concerns and experiences. The director’s Egyptian background was simply an aspect of his past that helped him develop an understanding of the film’s drama, but that did not assist him in becoming part of the current Egyptian film scene.

Additionally, many Egyptian filmmakers feel the closure of the screenings poses no danger to their futures, since the film is a European production, and its director lives abroad. As such they have followed the crisis merely as a recurrent phenomenon that represents no tangible impact on or violation of their own personal projects.

Sometime in the early 2000s, during the opening ceremony of the Dialogue of Civilizations Festival at the Artistic Creativity Center, where the film 11’09″01 September 11 (2002) was set to screen, late film critic Samir Farid apologetically informed the audience that the screening had been cancelled. The Culture Ministry, he said, did not approve the segment directed by Israeli director Amos Gitai, and Farid refused to show an incomplete version of the film, in which 11 directors from around the world had participated, including Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine.

The reactions of filmmakers and moviegoers, as well as those concerned with rights and freedoms in Egypt, varied. Many agreed that engaging with the censors over the issue was a losing battle that did not deserve the effort. They, however, had different reasons: while some protested that the screening of the film would constitute an act of normalization with Israel, others believed that this was not the right film to unite filmmakers and moviegoers in a battle against censorship authorities.

The latter argument was echoed, albeit in a different manner, in discussions surrounding The Nile Hilton Incident, with some alleging that the film is not worthy of solidarity and that it cannot provide a proper foundation for a battle with the Censorship Board. The superficiality of the film’s characters, especially the police officers, and its failure to present a substantial analysis of the networks of corruption in Egypt, made garnering support to protest its ban pointless among a wider audience.

This leaves one question. Does such a film, one long-awaited by moviegoers, that is able to trigger a battle with the the censors, exist? A “Khaled Saaed of films,” in the words of one filmmaker?

The battle will remain on hold until such a film arrives. A film made by an Egyptian filmmaker who is determined, engaged and oppressed, a filmmaker who prompts more people to support them, identify with them and accept how they choose to portray the issues they address. A filmmaker whose film unites everyone in support and allows no space for political ambiguity. (And I wonder if I have covered all the necessary criteria. Perhaps there is more.)

Coolly we wait for that film, in an equally stagnant cinematic climate, where filmmakers are blamed for their dearth of production and for the fact that there are no competing films in this year’s edition of the Cairo International Film Festival by a state that besieges and represses them. Ironically, it is the same festival that withdrew In The Last Days of the City from its main competition last year, leaving its filmmakers to face the censors alone, their film eventually banned in silence and complicity.

In a cinematic milieu that seems quite alienated from the world around it in spite of the internet, festivals and screenings, a milieu that is forced to repeatedly engage in losing battles with the state, we have become prisoners, unable to freely move or express solidarity in fear of losing whatever crumbs that remain. Perhaps this is why many could only look on with sadness at the removal of The Nile Hilton Incident from the Panorama program, without even being able to express anger, and with an additional dose of sorrow at the shrinking space for engagement.

Translated by Assmaa Naguib

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Bassam Mortada