Egypt's film troubles - just the symptoms?

‘Naji Atallah’ has been accused of pushing ties with Israel. But its focus is more on Cairo’s relations with the Arab world.

The latest project of Egyptian movie star Adel Imam, Naji Atallah’s Group, seems to be one of these movies that make great headlines long before a single shot is taken. The plot of the film is simple, intriguing and includes the magic word “Israel.”
Naji Atallah, a recently retired police officer, decides to rob an Israeli bank. He hires a few henchmen and proceeds with his plan. Then, flush with cash, he travels to an Arab country to invest it in search of big profits, but the country goes into financial crisis.
Then he moves to another Arab country, but fails miserably in all his activities and eventually he loses all his money.
Naji Atallah looked set to be a raging cinematic success, just like any other of Imam’s movies. It features a star as a leading character, a famous screen writer (Yossef Maati), Imam’s son Rami as a director, and a bunch of other celebrity Egyptian actors (including his other son, Mohamed).
Imam, 69, is also the producer of a popular reality show, Academiyat al-Zaim, in which young aspiring actors compete against one another. He had promised that the winners would be involved in the film project.
Back in 2008, Imam, who is the Egyptian equivalent of Robin Williams or Danny DeVito, proudly announced that the movie would be on screens as early as 2009.
And then the problems began.
First, the Arab media reported that Naji Atallah severely criticizes other Arab states for their mistreatment of Egypt and Egyptians. Then the headlines suggested that in the movie, Imam encourages the normalization of ties with Israel.
Despite the peace treaty, Egyptian society considers the normalization of ties with the Jewish state – economic, cultural or social – as strictly taboo, and those who dare to break the written and unwritten laws on the matter often become outcasts.
How robbing an Israeli bank encourages normalization of ties with Israel remains a mystery, yet the working schedule of the producers has had to be amended time and again.
In early September 2009, the Egyptian press festively declared that the work on the project would start after the end of Ramadan, later that month. By then the producers and some of the cast members had changed. The official explanation was that the actors were involved with other projects and could not wait forever for this one.
Recently, some Egyptian sources said work on the movie resumed on January 4 and will continue for several months. However, rumors continue to spread that Imam is experiencing difficulties getting permission to shoot in the other Arab countries that are mentioned in the movie script.
Imam himself ferociously denies that he advocates normalization with Israel. In fact, his 2005 comedy, Sifaara fil’Aimara (Embassy in the Building), demonstrates how the Egyptian street is unwilling to welcome the Israeli Embassy and its staff in Cairo.
Imam and his producers have tried to explain that Naji Atallah is not so much about Israel and Egyptian-Israeli relations, but about the problematic and entangled relations between Egypt and the Arab countries.
Screenwriter Maati was quoted by the Arabic Web site as saying, “I rejected the term ‘Arab brotherhood’... How, then, are we brothers when we are unable to establish an Arab common market, when we eat each other, and we must admit that most governments and Arab media hate Egypt?”
Could it be that Imam indeed meant to advocate normal relations with Israel in Naji Atallah’s Group? Amin al-Mahdi, an Egyptian political writer, known for his book The Other Opinion (2001), which was translated to Hebrew, believes that Imam is just expressing the official line of the regime.
“Adel Imam is an official actor, an actor approved by Hosni and Gamal Mubarak. Before, he was known for his anti-peace and anti-Camp David statements. Nowadays he says what is convenient to the regime, so it’s just a trick. If someone in Egypt will dare to really pursue peace and normalization with Israelis, he will be punished severely for this,” Mahdi said.
Many Egyptians have ambivalent feelings toward Egypt’s most famous and perhaps most talented actor.
During the ’90s, when radical Islamist groups terrorized Egypt, tried to murder President Mubarak and blew up a tourist bus in Luxor, Imam starred in memorable films – The Terror and the Kebab (1993) and The Terrorist (1994) – making fun of clumsy, bearded, barbaric Islamists and their simplistic, extremist views.
Subsequently, Imam’s movies dealt more with social problems – corruption in The Birds of Darkness (1995), social inequity in The Yacobian Building (2006) and complicated relations between Muslims and Christians in Hassan & Marcus (2008).
Nowadays, when bogged-down relations with other Arab countries have become a pressing problem for the Mubarak government, Naji Atallahis having a difficult start. Whether it’s pro-Israel or just anti-Arab,the problems that this project has experienced are perhaps a metaphorfor the difficult position of an Egyptian regime trying to strike abalance between Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, Americans and its manyfoes at home.