The Yacoubian Building (2006)
Dir. Marwan Hamed, Strand Releasing
This good old-fashioned melodrama explores political corruption, sexual coercion, poverty, religious fundamentalism and the deep-rooted melancholia at the core of contemporary Egyptian life. At $6 million, Marwan Hamed’s directorial debut had the highest budget of any Egyptian film to date. The anxiously awaited adaptation of Alaa Al Aswany’s best selling novel tells the story of the Yacoubian Building, an elegant, old world building in downtown Cairo that has fallen from grace.
Once the home of well-heeled families, it now houses faded dignitaries, a homosexual newspaper editor and a rooftop teeming with dispossessed migrant workers from the countryside. Everyone has his or her cross to bear. Bothayna, a beautiful and conservative young woman, must help her mother support her siblings after her father’s death while dodging the leering eyes and wandering hands of her employers. Her childhood sweetheart, Taha, an earnest and studious janitor’s son, buckles under social pressure and shame at his poverty, and becomes a religious fundamentalist. Even the rich don’t have it so easy. Hatem Rachid, a cosmopolitan newspaper editor, lures young soldiers into his bed with bottles of fine wine. His smug countenance barely disguises the deep loneliness and isolation that he feels in a culture leagues away from accepting his sexuality. Haj Azzam, a millionaire drug lord/politician, takes a secret second wife after recurring wet dreams. Perhaps the most tragic figure in this social tableau is Zaki El Dessouki, a wealthy, foreign educated engineer from a distinguished Egyptian family. His neighbors still call him by the ceremonial title “pasha”, the rough equivalent of an English lord. His poorer neighbors revere him and ply him with requests for advice. Zaki’s social equals, however, see him as a skirt chaser fueled by copious amounts of alcohol.
At first glance, the film is a morality play with high dramatic flourishes. It’s shot like television and has the narrative engine of a soap opera. In spite of, or perhaps because of these traits, the film is surprisingly compelling. The power dynamic between men and women, rich and poor and urban and rural plays out between the sheets. Sex is the common currency driving the film and it provides insight into characters that would otherwise be lost beneath layers of schmaltz and melodrama. The sympathy that the simple, broad smiling soldier Abdo Raboh elicits as he unwittingly begins to succumb to Hatem Rachid’s advances is quickly complicated as he boasts that he frequently takes his wife by force when she is too tired to make love. The political and social ills of contemporary Egypt are expressed via sexual humiliation; everybody is screwing everybody else, but no one comes out on top.
Jesi Khadivi writes on art, dance and film. She lives in Berlin.