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Biopics in the Arab world: History entangled with subjectivity

Two films about Egypt’s second president – “Nasser 56” (a 1996 Egyptian production) and “Gamal Abdel Nasser” (a 1999 Syrian movie) – paved the way for biopic productions in the Arab world. The huge success of the former, starring the late Ahmed Zaki, showed that millions of Arabs are curious to follow the stories of public figures and celebrities who have played significant roles in the modern history of their nations.

Still, biopics have been often surrounded by controversy as they are viewed by many as historical documents, and have at times been used to project specific readings upon the present rather than being emancipated works of art that offer subjective readings of historical events.

“In a conservative society with high illiteracy, the confusion between biopics as artistic works and sources of historical knowledge was quick. It’s the result of a long history of acquiring knowledge through cultural production and word of mouth,” says cultural critic and journalist Mo’men al-Mohammady.

The 2007 TV drama “King Farouk” offers a perfect example of such confusion. The Saudi-funded production about Egypt’s last monarch – a controversial figure repeatedly represented as corrupt after the 1952 revolution – raised much debate at the time about introducing historical information within a dramatic context that necessarily implies the subjectivity of the screenwriter.

The drama's screenwriter Lamis Gaber – a critic of Nasser – showed Farouk as a hesitant and simple-minded king, manipulated by his entourage to deviate from the path of “beloved patriotic ruler” that he followed at the beginning of his rule, to become an ally of the occupying British forces. The writer went out of her way to refute the claims of Farouk’s whimsicality and moral looseness, which spread widely in historical accounts produced after 1952.

As previous films and dramas had effectively portrayed the monarchial era as corrupt and unjust, various critics argued at the time that this single dramatic representation succeeded in creating sympathy for Farouk and nostalgia for royal traditions vis-a-vis military ones that dominated Egypt after the 1952 revolution. The popular success of the show was reflected in its repeated screening by various TV channels to date.

Nationalist writers such as Hamdi Kandil criticized the “fantasized” representation of Farouk as a subtle projection on Egypt’s political reality at the time the show was made, when then-president Hosni Mubarak was grooming his son Gamal to inherit power. He argued that it was an obvious attack on the republican system instated after 1952 – an argument that can be supported by Gaber’s recent statements on the 25 January uprising, describing the protests and Mubarak’s trial as “humiliating and unethical.”

But “King Farouk” is not the only example. It has been often difficult to present objective narratives in biographical works about politicians. After the idealization of Nasser in “Nasser 56,” offering a more complex representation of the third Egyptian president in “Days of Sadat” (2001) no doubt seemed difficult. Producer and leading actor Ahmed Zaki, along with director and screenwriter Mohamed Khan, were pressured to accept that Sadat's family would closely supervise the screenplay, as well as a good deal of state censorship. Mubarak was only referenced in one scene in “Days of Sadat”, when Sadat praised his courage and the 1973 air strike.

Eager to capitalize on the strong influence of biopics, Mubarak initially welcomed Zaki's proposal to make a film about his life. The project never materialized though, probably to avoid a possible failure with viewers (biopics had started garnering mixed reviews from the public), which could be viewed as a “dramatic referendum” on the popularity of the president; not to mention the restrictions that would be imposed on a screenwriter authorized to tell a story about a president in office.

For over a decade, the short history of biopics has been rife with disputes between those “represented” (or their families if they had passed away), the public and producers, and authors and actors.

In 2006, for example, screenwriter Mamdouh al-Leithy presented “Al-Cinderella” about iconic Egyptian actress Souad Hosni without the consent of her family or Al-Adl Group, which owned the rights for a similar work. Al-Adl sued the Egyptian Board of Censors, which had permitted shooting the drama. Nevertherless “Al-Cinderella” was followed by millions of viewers across the Arab world when aired in the 2006 Ramadan season – even though it focused on shallow, superficial features of her life and a love affair with singer Abdel Halim Hafez.

Writers’ attempts to strike a balance between telling the true story in detail while not tarnishing idealized images of celebrities has often damaged biopics. Egyptian singer Shadia, for instance, refused to consent to any works about her biography with the exception of the book “Sirat Shadia” (Shadia's biography) by journalist Samy Kamal al-Din.

The book highlights positive features of her spontaneous, loving and charming character, reinforcing her public image, a function that Kamal al-Din acknowledges in the preface as he writes that looking into the past of celebrities can be futile.

Except for “Om Kalthoum” aired in 1999, all Egyptian dramas made about popular singers have failed to gain the approval of fans. In it Om Kalthoum – a national icon – is idealized at the expense of rivals such as Fatheya Ahmed and Badiaa Masabny, who were misrepresented.

For many historians, Om Kalthoum is an example of an iron woman who understood the complex relationship between stardom, politics and art. She was Farouk’s favorite singer and praised him in many songs, before starting in 1948 to support the promising military leaders who led the1952 coup. She shined under Nasser’s rule and enjoyed a privileged status.

Such complexities were not explored in the biopic. In fact, political dimensions and relations with ex-politicians usually remain a taboo when speaking about artists. This was also evident in “Al-Cinderella,” “Abdel Halim Hafez” (2009) and “Al-Shahroura,” which is showing this Ramadan season.

Pressure on Souad Hosni in the 1960s from Egyptian intelligence to work for them was not mentioned in “Al-Cinderella,” although Itimad Khorshid – the alleged ex-wife of Intelligence Chief Salah Nasr – wrote about it in detail in her autobiography. A similar case can be made for “Abdel Halim Hafez,” whose close ties to Nasser and his military council are well known. In fact, his ties to political powers gained him privileges over potential young competitors like Mohamed Roshdy, Mohamed Kandil and Karem Mahmoud, popularly referred to as “Hafez’s victims.”

The 2008 biopic “Asmahan” was among the few works that delved into the personal and political aspects of the Syrian singer’s life and explored her mysterious relations with British, German and Syrian intelligence services in the 1940s. Before it aired, Asmahan’s nephew Prince Faysal al-Attrash asked the Syrian authorities to ban the work, accusing it of defaming the family, to the dismay of many cultural critics. “The Syrian despotic regime,” writes Syrian critic Mohamed Mansour, “prefers banning artistic works following the mentality of intelligence services even if by mistake; it’s better to imprison 100 innocents than let one criminal go.”

Other biographical dramas such as the 2009 "Ana Kalby Dalili" (My Heart Guides Me) about Jewish Egyptian singer Leila Mourad that touched upon other cultural taboos – the life of Jewish communities in Egypt before 1952 – were met with failure, yet this time due to a weak dramatic plot.

In addition to the rise in quantity of biographical dramas, a qualitative change can also be seen in 2011, with many works portraying celebrities other than singers and politicians. Baraka Productions is presenting “Al-Rayan” about the famous orchestrator of “Islamic” pyramid schemes back in the 1980s. Still, Ahmed al-Rayan said he would sue the production company for defamation even though it had acquired his approval.

“In the Presence of Absence” – a work about the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish – has been also surrounded by controversy since it started airing this month as the Mahmoud Darwish Foundation renounced the show and started a Facebook campaign to boycott it.

The ongoing disputes, however, will not stop screenwriters from approaching the biographies of celebrities. As more works are produced and restrictions are waived – hopefully – with the ongoing revolutions across the Arab world, the genre can be expected to thrive. And whereas common disclaimers about the works being fictional are currently meant to protect crews from possible legal action, in the long run they might succeed in convincing viewers that although such works are not fictional, they are opinionated like all history writing.

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