Egypt film tackles thorny issues of sex, hypocrisy
By Amil Khan Wed Jan 4, 8:12 AM ET
CAIRO (Reuters) - A young man on the back of a Cairo bus kisses and gropes the woman next to him as he peels off her Islamic headscarf.
The scene from an independent film about sex and double standards in Egypt shows little nudity but provokes gasps of surprise from an audience in this largely conservative country.
Director Ahmed Khaled's 14-minute film, the Fifth Pound, follows the weekly bus journey of a young man and woman who dodge the suspicious glances of other passengers and exploit the unused back seats to indulge in physical intimacy.
Cairo has a long-established film industry and is traditionally regarded as the center of Arab artistic production but themes linking sex and religion remain largely untouched by film makers in the Islamic nation.
In Khaled's film, verses from the Koran, the Islamic holy book, play in the bus as the driver smokes and steals glances in his rear-view mirror of the young man and the woman, who wears an Islamic headscarf.
Khaled says most venues in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, have refused to show his film because its subject matter could draw criticism in a country where the veil is seen by many as the height of female respectability.
But many young Egyptians say the setting is entirely realistic. They say use of public buses as a setting for romantic encounters is so common the air-conditioned vehicles favored by couples have earned the nickname "mobile beds."
"The film is about double standards in our society, about how people try to portray themselves in one way and then behave in a different conflicting way," said Khaled, who financed much of the film with his own money.
"There are a lot of things that happen in Egyptian society that Egyptians don't like to talk about," he added.
KISS AND DISROBE
Independent film makers in Egypt seeking to tackle controversial issues often struggle finding funds to make the films, and, once done, they cannot always raise the cash to show them at festivals at home or abroad, he said.
"The people who make the decisions, those people in the government cultural centers, they like safe films that don't break any boundaries," he said.
Among the boundaries that young Egyptian women want to challenge is the preferential treatment reserved for men.
"What will shock people about this film is the fact that it's a woman, and a woman in a veil at that, who is doing these things ... but no one says anything about what men are doing," said Rania al-Far, who attended a rare screening of the film.
The film shows the young couple board the bus and pay the driver 4 Egyptian pounds ($0.70) for two tickets before shuffling past other suspicious passengers on their way to the back seats.
"The scariest thing is the mirror which looks over the bus and which is used by the driver to see what happens in the back," the young man says in the film, addressing the audience.
The bus driver keeps looking at the couple through the mirror as if waiting to catch them indulging in illicit activity.
As the bus continues its journey through the streets of Cairo, the film cuts to a dream sequence where the driver walks to the back of the bus, takes the young man's seat and begins to kiss and disrobe the woman.
"That's double standards ... The driver is playing the Koran in the bus and watching the couple as if he is a moral guardian but inside his head he fantasizes about being the one who is with the girl," said Khaled.
As the couple leave the bus, the young man hands the driver an extra, fifth, pound.
"He knows nothing, and you did nothing," the young man adds in the narration.
Khaled said he was trying to show that some people give the impression of religiosity and ascetic piety but secretly covet worldly attractions such as money and sex.
"We have a lot of problems and issues in Egypt but we are not going to deal with them if we pretend they are not there," he added.