The ‘S’ word: Egyptian documentary film examines Cairo’s sex life

Egypt, where sex is still a very much taboo subject, ranks high on the list of countries generating the most porn-related online searches. Despite the proclivities their online indulgences imply, many Egyptians disavow any knowledge of sex, or the role it plays in their lives, for fear of violating social norms. It is this tension that forms the backbone of Amr Bayoumi’s hour-long documentary, “Sex Talk.”

Through a series of interviews, sound bytes and the occasional montage of newspaper headlines and article clippings, director Bayoumi attempts to create a mosaic of the wildly differing points of view and perspectives Egyptians have regarding sex and its role in contemporary society. Sex therapists, physicians, writers, artists and college students all share their opinions; insightful contributions that range from entertaining to illuminating to disturbing—particularly those of a handful of doctors and sex “experts” whose comments reveal a chilling detachment from the notion of basic human rights and sexuality.

The documentary opens with an extended montage in which Bayoumi stops pedestrians in a busy downtown square and asks them what they think about sex. Most of the men giggle awkwardly, while women—especially college-aged girls—are quick to assure they know nothing of the subject, with the answers usually falling firmly in the “sex is for reproduction” camp. Bayoumi then proceeds to examine the causes behind the vagueness, denial and outright shame Egyptians so closely associate with sex, be it pre- or post-marital, as well as the rampant double standards that have come to define men and oppress women across the capital. To what degree of success this is accomplished is debatable—the documentary definitely has its shortcomings, both in material and methodology.

“Sex Talk” is split into several chapters, each dealing with a separate topic such as masturbation, female sexuality, extra-marital affairs and female genital mutilation. The latter is the most disturbing, beginning with a sudden piece of footage depicting the horrendous act which many still commit out of a belief that it will protect their daughters from a future of promiscuity resulting from being able to enjoy sex. Bayoumi also documents the controversy generated by the issue, manifested mainly in the ongoing clashes between the Ministry of Family and Population and Islamist groups. In one of the interviews, renowned sex therapist and television personality Heba Kotb unwittingly embodies a further disturbing dimension to the debate by pompously explaining that while female genital mutilation isn’t essentially right, it is necessary in many cases in order to prevent discomfort caused by friction between clothes and a large clitoris.

Contradictions and warped perspectives of this sort characterize “Sex Talk,” and provide the documentary with its most intriguing and edifying moments. From the self-proclaimed “sex expert” who refused to marry the girl he loved because she had devalued herself by having sex with him, to the 25-year-old who claims to have an open mind before stating that his future wife must be “obedient,” back to Kotb who, in another of her many cringe-worthy offerings of insight, explains that while masturbation isn’t forbidden by religion, people should be “kept in the dark” about it to avoid “wearing out their organs”—”Sex Talk” succeeds in portraying a truly fascinating range of the confusion with which a significant amount of Egyptians approach sex.

“Sex Talk” is the work of an amateur, and it shows. Shot on video and unappealingly lit, the documentarians were clearly operating on a shoestring budget and, evidently, not much experience. The sloppy set-design comes across as naive and pretentious, with interviewees seated against a glowing fireplace and a bust of a blindfolded woman. The same can be said for the sparse piano score, with its single repetitive notes sounding like they’d be more suited to an art-house horror film. Most jarring of all is the editing. The film’s chapters are separated by tacky power-point presentations of famous works of art containing nudity, with the camera slowly zooming in on the pixilated genitals.

But these flaws matter little and in the end only serve as a reassuring reminder that, at a time when most of Egypt’s feature-film and documentary makers present works of style over substance, there are still amateurs with something important to say, and more importantly, the courage to say it.

"Sex Talk" is only shown at special screenings, and has not yet found a distributor.

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