After 30 Years, Director’s Film Arrives
Renowned Egyptian director Salah Abou Seif tried for nearly three decades to get his country’s censors to OK a script about sexual compatibility, frigidity, female circumcision, masturbation and prostitution.
Released to Egyptian audiences this year, six years after his death, the movie that grew out of that script has won praise from critics who said a story once too hot to handle was made into “a decent film about sex.”
After Abou Seif died in 1996, his son, Mohammed Abou Seif took up the cause of “Sex School,” submitting the script to the government when a new censor was appointed. Last year, he found a censor who believed Egypt was ready.
With the official permission needed for any filming in Egypt, the son shot his father’s movie.
Mohammed Abou Seif said he closely followed the “Sex School” script, including directing notes made by his father. He made only one change: The title became “The Ostrich and the Peacock.”
He persevered, he said, “because I knew how important it was for my father, and because it has been banned for no good reason.”
The elder Abou Seif thought that the script, based on his own idea and written in 1971 by Lenin el-Ramly, could help save marriages by increasing understanding about sex, his son said.
The “Sex School” script was first rejected in 1971 in what was a more liberal and secular Egypt. The younger Abou Seif believes that now, with the rise of religious conservatism, the government allowed the movie to be made because it wants to encourage an opposite liberal trend.
He says he is somewhere in the middle: “I’m not extremist about anything.”
Madkour Thabet, the censor who approved the film last year, says freedom of expression is valued in Egypt, but acknowledged: “What we lack is practicing it.”
The movie sees men as peacocks, strutting into their first sexual encounters, often with prostitutes, and full of misconceptions about sex and love. The shy ostrich is the woman, Samira, who cannot respond sexually to her husband, Hamdy, because she was circumcised as a child.
“The Ostrich and the Peacock” opens with Hamdy screaming at Samira after a failed attempt at sex: “You don’t love me, I can’t take this anymore. You are frigid. I’ve been married to a wall for three years.”
They separate. While Hamdy pursues a prostitute, Samira consults with a marriage counselor on female circumcision, still widely practiced but barely whispered about in Egypt.
Female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation, is known throughout Africa and ranges from clipping or burning the clitoris to cutting off all the external genitals and sewing the remnant tissue to leave a tiny opening. The goal is to limit a woman’s sexuality in traditional societies where high value is placed on a woman’s virginity and modesty.
“What is the use of this operation?” the 27-year-old Samira asks her counselor.
“It has no benefit. It’s a bad habit that we should stop,” comes the answer.
“But religion ordered it,” responds Samira.
“The majority of people think so, but this is not true,” says the counselor.
The actors underplay any drama in the exchange.
“I’m addressing a minefield topic. In order for nothing to explode in my face, I had to be straight and swift,” Mohammed Abou Seif said.
Samira and Hamdy journey toward reconciliation with the counselor’s help. Sensitive issues are presented as topics for religious or scientific debate, and little actual sex is shown.
El-Ramly, the scriptwriter, said he’d hoped to see “more exhibitionist scenes.” But Mohammed Abou Seif said, “Whether I like it or not, I can neither ignore nor forget the ethics and traditions which I grew up with.”
“‘The Ostrich and the Peacock’ is a decent film about sex,” wrote a critic in the daily Al-Ahram. But a critic for the weekly Sawt al-Umma said watching the movie was like “sitting in a classroom, not in a cinema.”
The movie won three prizes at Egypt’s Alexandria International Film Festival last year--best story, best music and best new actress for Basma, who played Samira.
Mohammed Abu Seif, 51, dedicated the movie to his “mentor and father, Salah Abou Seif.”
In his half-century career, the elder Abou Seif, a pioneer of realism in Egyptian cinema, directed 45 movies, many of them now considered classics. He found themes in attitudes about sex.
“A Woman’s Youth,” one of his landmark films, is a story of lust and restraint, desire and morality in which a femme fatale seduces a young man who left his village to study in Cairo. In “The Beginning and the End,” Nafisah, an ugly girl from a lower middle class family, becomes a prostitute because she craves love and attention.
“How big is the role of sex in our lives? That same proportion was reflected in his movies,” said Mohammed Abou Seif.