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According to Ahram Online, the separately edited English language outlet of Egypt’s semi-official newspaper Al Ahram, the first news of a problem with the film came just two days before its initial opening date, during a meeting between Al Khamissi and Egyptian censorship committee director Abd El-Satar Fathi.
The film producer requested the work file for his film, the news outlet reported, and when the censorship official obtained it, he found a note in the file from national security officials forbidding the film’s screening “because it is a documentary.”
Fathi was quoted in Ahram Online saying that he himself “supported the film all along.” When he contacted national security to ask for details, he was told that “the film’s title might cause public uproar… in light of the tension on the street,” Ahram Online reported.
Yet at the film’s October preview, the only uproar came from Egyptians clamoring to get in. The packed audience included at least one prominent Egyptian politician, scores of older Egyptians who recalled living alongside Jewish neighbors and younger Egyptians curious about the history of Egypt’s Jews. Organizers had to scramble to arrange a second screening later that evening to accommodate everyone who showed up.
The audience viewed a film that features interviews with Jews who were forced to leave their homeland in the 1940s and 50s. About 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt before this exodus. Those interviewed recalled a cosmopolitan, tolerant country until frictions stemming from Israel’s founding and ensuing conflicts between the two nations led to waves of expulsions. Today, Egypt’s Jewish population is believed to number a couple hundred at most.
Despite its controversial (for Egypt) subject matter, the film steers well clear of anything overtly political. In an interview with the Forward the day after the film’s preview at the October film festival, Ramses said that his goal was to distinguish Judaism from Zionism. He argued that the conflation of the two has spawned much of the anti-Semitism prevalent in Egyptian society.
Since the Cairo festival, the film has been screened at festivals in Rotterdam and Palm Springs as well as before critics in Cairo.
For months now, Egyptian artists and journalists have complained about a crackdown on free expression by the government of President Mohamed Morsi, who was a longtime senior official of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group, before his election in 2012.
Under the current regime, prominent actors and writers have been charged with defaming Islam. Media outlets critical of the government have also been targeted. Free speech advocates have warned that Egypt’s new constitution, ratified in December, undermines core freedoms.
In his October interview with the Forward, Ramses called censorship under Morsi’s democratically-elected government even more restrictive than under Mubarak. Now, he sees the aborted crackdown on his own film as an indication of just how blatant the suppression of certain artistic forms has become.