Popular fim holds mirror to Egyptian society, for better and worse

Film that portrays citizens as second-class in their own country said to be honest, but Egyptians say maintains their feeling that they would not live anywhere else.

Egyptian movie fans enter a theater June 15, 2010 to see the recently released film by Egyptian comedy star Ahmed Helmy entitled "Asal Eswed" (literally translated, "Black Honey") in downtown Cairo, Egypt. The film is a social satire that tackles  issues of national identity. (Photo by Scott Nelson for the National)

CAIRO // A new dark comedy praised for holding a mirror up to Egyptian society has become a box office hit but split opinion on how the country should portray itself. Asal Eswed, meaning molasses or black honey, starring the comedian Ahmed Helmy, opened nationwide two weeks ago and has already drawn big crowds to cinemas. The film is being praised for giving an honest look at Egyptians, revealing their flaws, daily suffering, and how they have become a second-class citizens in their own country, which they love despite everything.

In the film's darker scenes, it shines a spotlight on the arrests of citizens and torture at police stations, and when and if they are released, they get no apology or compensation. Such incidents resonate even louder with Egyptians as public outrage still runs high over the alleged killing of Khaled Said, 28, by undercover police officers. Said was beaten while sitting in an internet cafe in Alexandria on June 6. According to witnesses, he was beaten to death in the street, his body left there.

Thousands have protested against the incident in Alexandria, demanding the punishment of the perpetrators. Demonstrators in Cairo were beaten and scores were detained. In the film, Helmy plays Masry Sayed el Araby, or the Egyptian Arab, a photographer in his early 30s who returned to a very different Egypt after spending 20 years in the United States. He returns to his native country with big dreams, but finds things are not so easy in the land of his father. Trials and tribulations await around every corner and there are plenty of lessons to be learnt - and some difficult decisions to be made.

In one scene he is arrested for taking pictures of the Nile and taken by undercover police to the nearby Qasr el-Nil police station, once notorious for torturing political activists. There, the officers beat him and make him sit with his knees bent for hours before finally releasing him. The film's ability to relate to everyday Egpytians seems to have struck a cord across different generations. "I liked the movie, it's funny, despite showing bad things about Egypt, which are true," said Youssef Jerome, 13, an American-Egyptian living in Cairo.

Anne el Malt, 35, a housewife from Cairo, who attended the movie with two of her sons, also praised the positive message "that Egypt, despite its problems, and they are many, is worth living in". Critics have had opposing views about the film, with some saying the film served its purpose by holding up a mirror to Egyptian society while others thought the film was not critical enough. "The black comedy managed to disect the society and address all its faults and negativity, courageously and frankly," said Saad Hagras, a columnist for the independent daily Al Masry al Youm. "The film made us laugh loudly, just to discover that our laughters are mixed with tears, as we're watching our complex reality that is rampant with frustrations and defeats.

"The film portrays an amazing painting, in which the black is dominating Egypt's image, but the sweetness of the honey remains in its soul," Hagras added, referring to the film's title. Magda Kheirallah, a film critic with Al Wafd, an opposition daily, questioned the film's message of loyalty to "a country where poverty, unemployment and humiliation are widespread". For some, especially those aligned with the status quo, the film was too dark and not positive enough about Egyptian society.

"This film is a part of series of self-hating movies that aim to tarnish the Egyptian society and portraying a negative image in front of the world," wrote Maha Matboaly in the state-owned daily Rose al Youssef. However, Khaled Diab, the film's screenwriter, said in an interview that a self-hating portrayal of his homeland was the farthest thing from his mind when he sat down to write the screenplay in late 2006. "I disagree with this ready accusation of tarnishing Egypt's image. My film portrays a beautiful Egypt, with its people, despite all its and their problems and shortcomings, that we love and we want to live in."