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Director goes off Egypt’s script

In the sweltering heart of a poor country, where desperate men board smuggling boats heading for uncertain lives across the sea, a Christian girl and her forbidden Muslim boyfriend test the bonds of love and the bounds of tolerance.

Getting such a story onto film has not been easy for Egyptian American director Hesham Issawi. Egypt’s Ministry of Interior cited national security concerns in April when it temporarily halted production of " Cairo Exit.” The director’s austere realism was deemed too sensitive for a nation simmering with religious frictions and political anger.

“It’s a love story. There’s no politics,” said Issawi, who after years of working in the U.S. has briefly returned to the daily struggles and cultural complexities of his native land. “It’s the story of a young girl afraid. She doesn’t know what lies ahead. That’s the whole thing about Egypt. We have to kill our fear.”

But, the censor protested, why do Egyptians have to confront this fear with provocative images of a whorehouse, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and Christian and Muslim lovers torn by poverty and desire while living in a crucible of whispers and religious divisions?

“This all exists in Egypt. I just compressed it,” said Issawi, 41, a onetime anthropology major who dropped out of Alexandria University and left Egypt to study film in Chicago. He eventually settled in Los Angeles, making movies that have won awards in festivals in New York and other cities.

“Cairo Exit” is Issawi’s attempt to articulate Egypt’s social and economic troubles. He submitted the script to the government censor shortly after the slayings of six Coptic Christians by Muslim gunmen in January.

The killings pointed to deepening interfaith anxieties and suspicions that the country has historically preferred to ignore. The censor worried that the depiction of the film’s protagonist, a Christian girl named Amal, as pregnant with her Muslim lover’s child would infuriate priests and imams alike.

Christians and Muslims have coexisted here for centuries, but growing Islamic conservatism, along with scattered violence against Copts, who make up about 10% of the population, has the government on edge. The authoritarian state has sought to suppress radical voices while Muslim and Christian clergy have conjured a false gleam of harmony. Such an atmosphere, charged by poverty, was not welcoming to a returning exile aiming his lens beyond the limits of tradition and taboo.

Issawi, a Muslim, is the son of a geologist and a journalist. He spent much of his youth studying American movies and fuses art and confrontation in his own films. His works include a documentary on the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to turn Egypt into an Islamic state.

His fictional films explore the psychological and moral issues concerning how Arabs have been perceived in the West since Sept. 11, 2001. One of them, “AmericanEast,” partly inspired by Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” is set in a steamy Los Angeles cafe where Arab customers contend with rage, paranoia and fear in a country that looks warily upon them.

“Cairo Exit” slips into the clattering slums of Egypt. Since Issawi’s youth, the city has turned crowded and moody. Egyptians have grown restive; everyone seems to be rubbing up against someone else. Mothers complain about the rising costs of cucumbers and meat, and alleys echo with tinkerers and fix-it men hoping to earn a few dollars a day. A lot doesn’t work, and what does is fueled by bribes and connections, leaving millions of people running for rusty public minibuses beneath a skyline hemmed in smog.

“It seems there’s no sense of security,” Issawi said. “There’s hopelessness, rising crime, fundamentalism and people escaping across deserts and oceans for better lives. When you wake up, life becomes a struggle for even the simplest of things.”

He added, “I hadn’t been to Cairo in 14 years, but since 2003 I’ve been coming back and each trip I’ve noticed the materialism is getting worse and worse. There’s a saying in Egypt now, ‘Everyone has their hands in someone else’s pocket.’ People have nothing, but they want.”

“Cairo Exit” is about choice and a chance to escape. Amal’s hairdresser friend, Ranya, has hymen restoration surgery so she can pretend to be a virgin and marry a rich man from the Persian Gulf. Amal’s lover, Tarek, decides to take a smuggler’s boat to Europe, leaving her on the dock, forced in the final scenes to choose between him and her family and country.

“In the 1980s, when I was living in Cairo, I had a Coptic girlfriend. The tension between religions didn’t exist then, but maybe I was too young to notice,” Issawi said. “But it’s impossible to fix what the government has done to this country in the last 30 years. It has succeeded in corrupting even the people themselves. And that’s part of the Egyptian fear. They don’t know what will come tomorrow. Here, the sense of tomorrow is zero. This is what kills them. Egyptians don’t dream anymore.”

The film’s troubles began early. The producer, Sherif Mandour, also produced the 2007 film “Eye of the Sun,” another director’s unsparing depiction of Egyptian life that ran afoul of the censor. Well-versed in Egypt’s chaos and bureaucracy, Mandour urged Issawi to begin filming before receiving the censor’s decision. But police showed up at shooting locations and the Interior Ministry shut down the production with 30% of the movie unfinished.

With crucial scenes missing, Issawi submitted a revised script to the censor, who recently agreed to the changes and allowed filming to resume. In 2008, the censor had approved another director’s Muslim-Coptic comedy about switched identities that stressed sectarian harmony and starred the revered Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.

“I just cleaned it up on paper,” Issawi, who hopes to enter “Cairo Exit” in the Berlin Film Festival next year. “The story hasn’t changed. It’s only for the censor’s benefit. The movie will be shot as I intended.”

Issawi sat sweating beneath the hum of a fan in a cafe in south Cairo, drinking “American coffee” from a tall cup. Leonard Cohen’s voice soothed from a loudspeaker and, amid potted palms and shrinking shade, it seemed another world, the cicada-like clamor of Cairo distant from young couples with laptops and expensive sunglasses. After the bill was paid, and the waiter in the ball cap smiled, the city’s roar began, calm at first, like white noise, but then turning to screech and steel.

The director headed toward its heart, laughing the way a frustrated man does in an inscrutable country where nothing is done on time and a promise is little more than a wisp of suggestion. Some things haven’t changed in Cairo, especially for a man trying to outflank a censor and manage a film crew.

“I told my crew, ‘God gave me three hours of good light. Be here at 5:30 a.m. And they said, ‘Why can’t we come at 9?’ I had to fire a lot of them and I ended up hauling lights and equipment myself. This is the most difficult film I’ve ever made. I’m exhausted. The creative process is drained.”

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com


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