A film doesn’t need to be great to help make a revolution.
“The Yacoubian Building,” a rare Egyptian film to get any kind of American distribution, is overlong and schematic; episodic and melodramatic; and sometimes the acting goes way over the top. Yet it explains much of the frustration and despair that motivates the current revolt by Egyptians from all walks of life. As in all oppressive societies, the official reality is often distant from the reality experienced by the oppressed.
Its central conceit is the Yacoubian building -- an actual building that stands in downtown Cairo. The film opens by tracing the building's history. Originally built by Armenians that housed a wealthy clientele, there was a shift after 1952, in a coup which overthrew King Farouk and installed Gamal Abdel Nasser as Egypt’s president. The building's character changed to include the poor working classes which took even the rooftop storage rooms as living quarters. Much of this was due to the influx of the rural poor into the urban Cairo metropolis.
The building serves as the platform for an elaborate soap opera. As the most expensive film in the history of Egyptian cinema, the film became immensely popular and controversial in Egypt. One reviewer called it “the Arab world’s Brokeback Mountain” Nevertheless, it became the official entry to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
The taboo subjects “The Yacoubian Building” touches made the film a sensation inside Egypt. Among the contemporary residents of the Yacoubian Building is Haj Azzam, a strictly religious, self-made businessman. But his religious persona proves distant from his personal life. Haj uses his wealth to buy the hand of a beautiful widow. Another resident, Hatem Rasheed, is a newspaper editor who harbors a secret: He’s gay and involved with a handsome young soldier. Zaki Pasha, an aging playboy, lives at the Yacoubian on money from his family. Eventually, after Zaki gets rolled by a prostitute and loses his sister’s ring, the sister kicks him out of the apartment. Zaki is forced to move into his office -- which he used for many romantic encounters.
Yet another subplot concerns Bosnaina, who lives in one of the rooftop apartments and cleans Zaki's rooms. She’s grown tired of her boyfriend, Tahya, who gets caught up in Muslim extremism.
What all these sub-plots add up to is an aggregate portrait of corruption in Egyptian society – the extreme divisions between rich and the poor, and the convenient exploitation of the have-nots by the privileged classes. The law applies to those who can’t afford to get around it. Watching “The Yacoubian Building”, you get the idea of the building as a microcosm of Egypt itself, an overheated pot ready to boil over.
“The Yacoubian Building” is the first feature by filmmaker Marwan Hamed and is based on an equally popular novel by Alaa Al Aswany.
The film was criticized for showing the underbelly of Egyptian life. 112 members of the Egyptian parliament demanded that several sex scenes be cut because the scenes may “damage Egypt’s image.” The current residents of the Yacoubian building also threatened legal action because they found the film offensive. Hamed, the director, described the film’s characters as: "A corrupt politician; an aristocratic womanizer; a destitute young woman who lives on the roof of the building and is sexually abused at work; a talented student who mutates into an Islamic terrorist, after he is denied the opportunity to study at the police academy because his father works as a janitor and has a low social status; a journalist who suffers because of his homosexuality; and a shoe-shine boy who rises to become a member of parliament and misuses religion to pursue his own interests.” Hamed then went on to defend the characters and the situations they find themselves in. He said, “The film is a document of the time we live in, because it shows very openly what many are thinking in secret. The film shows the decay that imbues outside reality. Corruption has eaten its way into all areas of Egyptian life.”
Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia and Worldview’s weekly film contributor.