Yousry Nasrallah’s new documentary film, On Boys, Girls and the Veil, touches on a paradoxical aspect of Egyptian filmmaking. Despite the ubiquitous hijab — the neo-Islamic “veil” — in Egyptian life, covered women are quite rare in the cinema. The reason for this is that both filmmakers and Islamists conflate the hijab with political discourse on the role of religion in politics and modern life in general. The topic of politicized religion — or religion in any manifestation that intersects with modernity — is not high on the agenda of the Egyptian film industry, and one therefore sees few covered women in Egyptian films.
Recently, and with great fanfare, certain films have allegedly broken the taboo against depicting Islamist incursions into the state’s domain. The Terrorist (1994), which starred the enormously popular actor ‘Adil Imam, is the best known example of the new wave of cinematic commentary on Islamism. The Terrorist was an anti-sociological portrayal of politicized Islam as entirely a product of rural-based gangsters funded by unnamed foreign powers. It was a relentlessly condescending view of the danger posed by politicized religion to modern society. The idea, however, that filmmakers were unable to discuss religious politics, or even Islam, before ‘Adil Imam broke the deafening silence on the subject needs considerable qualification. The Terrorist has changed very little about the way Egyptian films discuss religion. Filmmakers and playwrights have never been prohibited from mocking or criticizing manifestations of Islam that transgress the boundaries of institutionalized religion as defined by the state. The “taboo-breaking” films such as The Terrorist that one reads about even in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal do not represent a new departure for Egyptian cinema so much as the crystallization of a position in a long-standing polemic.
Into the midst of this culture war comes On Boys, Girls and the Veil. Nasrallah’s film exposes a certain disingenuousness in filmmakers’ claims that they are forced to choose sides in the conflict between state and Islamists. The film subverts a much more powerful taboo than that allegedly broken by The Terrorist — the taboo against discussing (rather than condemning or supporting) religious incursions into putatively secular territory. As the title suggests, On Boys, Girls and the Veil is about how young men and women relate to each other in the era of hijab — a symbol that seems to appear in films only as a sign of religiously inspired conservatism. Nasrallah suggests that the hijab is not exclusively linked to religion, as the state and virtually all films that have depicted it, and much of Islamist rhetoric would have us believe. People in the film talk about the hijab as a matter of modesty, a fashion statement, a phenomenon of peer pressure and as a practical response to the modern imperative of female work in the public domain. The issue of hijab as religious obligation is mentioned, but Nasrallah deliberately downplays it, and therein lies the film’s subversiveness: It explores the meaning and practice of a symbol rather than deploying it in the polarized rhetoric of misguided politicization of religion versus the state or, from the other side, total acceptance of Islamist ideology versus moral desolation.
The central character in the film is a young man named Basim Samra who lives in a lower middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo. The film follows him working, interacting with friends and relatives, attending raucous saints’ festivals and a wedding, talking rather shyly to various young women and constantly being nagged to settle down and marry, despite his obvious financial inability to do so. From Samra the film branches out to friends, colleagues and relatives. The “boys” talk about their lives first, then the “girls,” followed by discussion of the hijab, always grounded in the larger concerns of work, leisure and sexuality.
Structuring the film around Samra was a crafty decision. Nasrallah insists that only one brief scene in the film was staged: Samra comes up a staircase where the camera is filming a group of covered women seated on the steps singing a popular love song; he pauses out of sight of the women, and we briefly see a symmetrical opposition of “boys and girls,” each longing to make contact with the other, but separated by a “veil-like” stone banister. There is, however, more to the issue of “staging” than this one scene suggests. Basim Samra has worked in earlier films — Nasrallah’s Mercedes in 1993 and Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Enlightened by It’s People in 1991, both controversial films made for an international audience. Samra’s roles in these films were small but crucial, and although his previous film work is mentioned several times in the course of the film, Nasrallah never explicitly highlights the implications of his primary subject’s semi-professional status. Would On Boys, Girls and the Veil have been as effective, or even have been possible, without the active and intelligent collaboration of a central character positioned, perhaps uncomfortably, between the world of Nasrallah — a Christian and one of Egypt’s most cosmopolitan filmmakers — and the Muslim lower middle-class Cairene world of his subjects? The liminal status of informants is a familiar issue for anthropologists, and one that is apropos here as well. The film is by no means spoiled by the likelihood of collusion between the filmmaker and his subject. But a full awareness of this possibility does add an additional layer of complexity to the multiple ambiguities inherent in the documentary/ethnographic genre, perched as it is between fiction and non-fiction, and between apparent representations of “real life” and the constructed vision of the filmmaker.
Nasrallah, who learned filmmaking from Youssef Chahine, and not from Egypt’s Higher Institute for the Cinema, has made only three films: Summer Thefts (1988), Mercedes (1993) and On Boys, Girls and the Veil. Summer Thefts portrayed the nationalization of feudal estates from the point of view of landowners and is said to be autobiographical. The film featured no stars, and garnered a very limited (but highly elite) following in Egypt. Mercedes is about a young man’s search for his half-brother. One is gay and the other in love with a woman who looks exactly like his mother. It was not a blockbuster, but the director claims it did as well in Egypt as most films that do not star ‘Adil Imam or Ahmad Zaki (the only star who even comes close to rivaling Imam’s popularity). But Nasrallah financed the film by pre-selling it to French television, and the combination of European financing and the film’s racy content (all the more scandalous by virtue of its being shown to foreigners) earned him fierce criticism in the media.
On Boys, Girls and the Veil, like Nasrallah’s Mercedes, was made with French financing. Directors who resort to this strategy are regularly denounced by journalists. Nasrallah and his mentor, Chahine, have been vilified for their alleged collaboration with foreigners who are “out to slander the image of Egypt.” Their films, in truth, have been made with a cosmopolitan audience in mind; they are often criticized for being out of touch with local filmmaking aesthetics. Nasrallah”s critics will undoubtedly try to portray On Boys, Girls and the Veil as part of a foreign plot to misrepresent Egypt and/or Islam. The latter charge will carry little weight with people who actually see the film, although those with a stake in the polarized discourse typical of the rest of the cinema may well feel threatened by the work. The former accusation — that the film should be dismissed as nothing more than the machinations of dirty foreign capital — flies in the face of reality. Virtually all Egyptian films are dependent on foreign financing or at least foreign markets (just as American films depend on a global market). Usually the source of funding and/or markets for Egyptian films is the Arab Gulf, and this fact is greatly resented by artistically ambitious directors. The Gulf market, they complain, wants only certain stars (who typically hog the lion’s share of any film budget), putting severe limits on the contents of films. Many directors overcome this by making the films they want and then letting the Saudi censors chop the scenes they deem unacceptable. Nasrallah insists that by comparison the French attach fewer strings to the projects they support. He and Chahine may be making films considered elitist by local standards, but for a film industry to survive in Egypt some way must be found to tap into more lucrative and less restrictive markets. In an era when the dream of government-subsidized filmmaking looks ever more fanciful, their effort is important.
On Boys, Girls and the Veil has been well received in Europe and the United States. It might well be the first film Nasrallah has made that can appeal to both international and Egyptian audiences. Unfortunately we may never know for certain whether this is true, because the film will very likely be given only limited venues in Egypt. Nasrallah cooperated fully with Egyptian censors, and there is in fact no reason the film cannot be shown to a wider home audience except, as the director puts it, “that they want to avoid a headache.” Ultimately, the film will be shown to film specialists and university audiences, but probably never in commercial theaters or on Egyptian television. This is unfortunate because On Boys, Girls and the Veil effectively enables a less polarized discussion of an important phenomenon than has previously been possible in the film medium.