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The Yacoubian Building screened in London Fest

The Yacoubian Building is reputed to be the most expensive Egyptian film of all time, and is an exceptional piece of filmmaking. Adapted from Alaa El Aswany's novel of the same name, the highly-anticipated picture follows the lives of fictional characters living in the Yacoubian Building; home to members of Cairo's upper-class since 1937.

El Aswany's novel deals with power, corruption, sex, exploitation, poverty and extremism. It is one of the best-selling Arabic-language works of fiction in recent decades. A single event inspired the book: El Aswany was walking in Cairo's Garden City area when he saw an old building being demolished. The building was being torn down in longitudinal sections, making its many separate rooms visible. El Aswany saw energy in the rooms and much opportunity for an intriguing insight into life behind closed doors. The concept stayed with him for eight years until he finally began writing the novel in 1998. The book's richness and acute understanding of human relationships made it an ideal candidate for a big-screen adaptation.

Renowned screenwriter Wahid Hamid recognised this and has done the book justice in his script. He and Director Marwan Hamid have drawn attention to some of the more incendiary issues in their adaptation including adultery, political corruption, terrorism and homosexuality; exploring varied aspects of Egyptian life from numerous angles.

The Local Censorship Office in Egypt green-lighted the film in spite of its controversial subject matter. Sex and sexuality have long been top of Egyptian cinema's list of taboos. It is often the case that directors play it safe by skirting around the issue, but doing so in The Yacoubian Building would have meant losing a crucial element of the text; the struggle between social expectations and human emotion. One of its subplots explores the sexual affair between rich, educated, Francophone journalist Hatim Rasheed, (Khaled El-Sawy), and Abd-Rabo (Bassem Samra), a poor, naive, illiterate soldier. The film also follows the life of the aristocratic Zaki El Dessouki (Adel Imam) who lives up to the stereotype of the upper class male with his weakness for women. One of his neighbours, Bothayna (Hend Sabri), is a young girl from a poor background. Obliged to perform sexual favours for her employer in order to feed her family, she is ultimtately forced to sacrifice the love of her life, Taha El Shazly (Mohamed Imam). The film focuses on the temptations and desires of individuals belonging to different social classes and both sexes. Although this could be interpreted as controversial, it makes its audience aware of the inner struggles that many different members of society have to face. It delivers the notion that humans are united by the same strengths and weaknesses.

The film's realism is even more striking for those familiar with the Egyptian capital. Much of the movie is set within the confines of the Yacoubian Building, which stands to this day in the heart of Cairo. Some of the building's residents have criticised the author and filmmakers for producing what could be interpreted as a roman à clef. Several libel suits have been filed. El-Aswany and the production team dismiss the allegations, stressing that his work is purely fictional except for the location.

It is difficult to fault the production value of the picture. It combines traditional and contemporary techniques, paralleling the conventional issues that are still topical in the modern world. With some of Egypt's finest talent starring in the movie it was always going to attract attention. Adel Imam is easily one of the most high-profile actors in the Arab world, having appeared in over 100 movies. With its 'Adults Only' rating adding intense speculation, the film broke domestic box-office records on release.

Amira Hashish


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