Marginal or Mainstream?

Michael Moore’s controversial Fahrenheit 9/11 has suffered setbacks in the Arab world, banning largely due to its anti-Saudi content. To date, only Lebanon, Jordan, and, most recently, Egypt have released the full version of the film. In Cairo and Alexandria, the documentary has had a limited showing, as many theaters are earmarked exclusively for Arabic films. Despite these limitations, however, the film has fared well, with many viewers welcoming an alternative American view of the Iraq war. – YaleGlobal

Marginal or Mainstream?

After rumours that it might not show at all, Fahrenheit 9/11 finally opened in Cairo and Alexandria
Magda El-Ghitany
Friday, September 3, 2004

Michael Moore's award winning documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 opened quietly in Cairo and Alexandria two weeks ago. In spite of the fact that the film is anti- Bush and anti-war, it has received a less than enthusiastic reception in the Arab world, where most countries have banned it. The exceptions to date are Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.

The pressure against the movie is a direct result of the negative portrayal it contains of the Saudi royal family. In Jordan, censors tried to cut the Saudi coverage, but their decision was overruled and the film was finally shown in its complete version. Syria is yet to take a final decision.

After rumours that the Saudi government had applied pressure on Egypt to ban the movie, Ali Abu Shadi, Egypt's censor, announced two weeks ago that not only had no pressure been applied, but the film would be shown in full.

While the movie is only screening at two small movie theatres at opposite ends of Cairo and during the mid-night showing of a downtown cinema, it has been attracting a fair-sized audience. On one evening in the middle-class neighbourhood of Nasr City, the people who had come out to see the film were from varied backgrounds, including Gulf Arabs, alongside young Egyptians, middle- aged couples and foreigners.

"The movie is excellent!" said Amal El-Beshbishi, professor at the Faculty of Commerce of Mansoura University. "What is good about it is that it confronts you with the truth". She argued that although the documentary was not meant to defend Arabs, it still showed certain truths that the Western media try to hide. "I lived in the US for some years," said El-Beshbishi. "I believe that this documentary could be a turning point in the way Americans feel about the Iraq war, because it offers facts that are directed to their minds, and not their hearts. That is the best way to convince an American."

Mohamed El-Dessouqi, an engineer, agreed that while the documentary did not aim to defend "us", it would definitely "put things right". El-Dessouqi came to watch the movie because of the strong reactions it had evoked at Cannes this year, where it won the Palme d'Or. "I also wanted to know how they [US policy-makers] were thinking about the Middle East," El-Dessouqi added. "I would like to watch it again, to understand better how policy-making comes to be that intricate."

A high school student, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Fahrenheit 9/11 revealed that even America, the world's biggest democracy, is also corrupt. "They are not as perfect as they always try to pretend they are," said the student. "They've made some horrible mistakes."

Mohamed Nasser, a journalist, considered the Cannes prize for director Michael Moore a turning point in the history of documentary movies. "It succeeds in going beyond the usual boring documentary format," Nasser stated.

He also felt strongly that the movie should play in other movie theatres, both cheaper ones and those located downtown, "so that as many people as possible can see it".

The Maadi and Nasr City suburbs are far from the city centre, and are therefore inaccessible for many Cairo residents. And at Sheraton which is more central, the movie is only shown at mid-night. But according to the company distributing the film, there was no deliberate policy to release it only in nice middle- class neighbourhoods on the outskirts of town. "On the contrary", said Isaad Younis, chairperson of the Arabic Corporation for Cinema Production, who have four copies of the movie, three of which are presently showing in Cairo, and one in Semouha (Alexandria).

''The problem was that almost all the Cairo movie theatres had been booked for Arabic movies. This made it difficult to schedule Fahrenheit 9/11. The practice of showing Arabic films [in the high season of summer] is important to the national industry. Hence, the only theatres we could find with free screens were those in Maadi and Nasr City."

Younis went on to point out that "Nasr City draws about 40 per cent of the potential Cairo movie-going audience." So if someone had wanted to marginalise the movie, the last thing they would have done would be to put it on the Nasr City theatres' play list.

Fahrenheit 9/11 has not done too badly by Egyptian cinema standards so far -- an estimated LE303,848.

But Younis is more interested in bringing alternative movies to the Egyptian market than in making huge profits. Having produced the controversial Arabic release, I Love Cinema, there is some substance to her claim. "People, especially young people, have shown an interest in watching movies that have a message," Younis explained. "This is a very positive sign about how people think and what they need."

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. Reprinted from Al-Ahram Weekly, 2 - 8 September 2004 (Issue No. 706).

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