The long, marginal history of Copts in film is about to change.kind of!
I wasn t intending to write a full-length review of Al Rahina (The Hostage), one of the most high-profiled films of the current Eid releases. The film, after all, looked like intrinsic entertainment fare with little substance.
Halfway through the film though, the subject of the reportedly undying conflict between Christians and Muslims in Egypt was, all of a sudden, brought to the forefront of the story and ended up turning into one of the few very few films in recent years that addresses this issue.
For the greater part of last century, Coptic characters in Egyptian popular dramas were either non-existent or restricted to the marginal roles of the kind, supportive one-dimensional characters that appear to subsist for the sole purpose of trying to capture a little glimpse of reality.
In numerous classic films such as Hassan, Mor os and Cohen, filmmakers and writers, just like many other members of 1940s society, regarded and depicted Christians, of different sects, as a meager minority that are no different from the rest of the society in their characteristics and behavior.
Few films dared to stray from these conventions.
Yousef Chahine s autobiographical Alexandria, Leih (1978) (Alexandria, Why?) presented his own middle-class family on screen as a bunch of flawed, yet endearing and realistic group who, like many Alexandria residents of the early century, didn t take religion too seriously.
Before Alexandria though, two highly controversial films with central Christian Characters were screened in 1963 and ’65 respectively, both starring Hind Rostom and directed by Hassan Al Imam.
The first was Chafika al Keptia (Chafika the Copt Girl) about the true story of a notorious Coptic belly dancer who was brought up in a poor conservative family, raked fame and fortune from her career and led a subsequent tragic life.
The film was, and still is, groundbreaking in its audacity in dealing with, and trying to comprehend, the Christian morale.
The second film is Al Rahiba (The Nun) which chronicled a Lebanese Catholic girl s trajectory from her life as a twisted night-club dancer and singer until she finds her ultimate redemption in a secluded convent.
Both films would have been banned or faced with lawsuits had they been released these days and that highlights how 1960s society was much more compassionate, cultured and broadminded than now.
Egyptian drama did not witness other Christian-centered character films more till the highly controversial Baheb El Cima (I love Cinema) in 2004. But the path between The Nun and El Cima has been trodden with escalating quandaries and mistreatment of Christians in those dramas.
From the late 1980s till the start of the new century, a host of mainly foreign and some Egyptian Christian characters renounced their Christianity and converted to Islam in those dramas.
The catchphrase of Rabena Hadahom (God has guided them to the righteous path) became common as if Christianity was some kind of an immoral order these people have been misguidedly following throughout their lives.
This repeated statement was hurtful, terribly offensive and extremely provocative for all Christians who ve been watching these films for the last decade. The Coptic community has always been silent for all those years for many historical reasons.
But the Coptic Church has been finding its voice, growing stronger and empowering its followers to, for the first time in modern history, voice their opinions and express their opposition towards the multitude of social, political and cultural issues that concern them.
The Egyptian Christian community s new found strength was demonstrated with the aforementioned El Cima which featured a strict Coptic father with a crisis of faith, an infidel mother and family members that fight and curse in front of an altar at a wedding service.
The film was banned for a few months until an Egyptian court overruled the scores of charges pressed against it. The hostile reaction Baheb El Cima received was not only an indication of intolerance but also a direct result of years of repression, discrimination and neglect.
And now, we come to “Al Rahina , director Sandra Nash at’s follow-up to her hugely successful Malakey Eskendria (Private Alexandria).
It is the first film in modern Egyptian history to tackle the obvious strife between Christians and Muslims albeit, with a shallow approach.
The comedy/thriller, penned by the popular novelist Nabil Farouk of the Ragol El Mostaheel (Man of Impossibilities) fame, centers on Moustafa, (a surprisingly appealing Ahmed Ezz) an unemployed young man traveling to Ukraine in pursuit of a job.
He meets the Nobel Prize winning Christian nuclear scientist Dr Makram Sehab (Salah Abdallah) who leaves his luggage and laptop with him before being kidnapped by a ruthless criminal (Nour, in a failed attempt to play a believable femme fatale).
Moustafa, with the help of a TV reporter (an irritating, dim-witted Yasmine Abdel Aziz) and his two Christian friends (Maked El Kidwany and Mohamed Sharaf) embarks on a risky trek to save Makram.
We learn later on that an Islamic terrorist organization abducts Makram for reasons that revolve around the fact that he is a Christian.
Two primary scenes are spawned from this discovery: One where Makram s brother avers on TV that the Muslims kidnapped Makram as they can t accept the idea of a Christian scientist achieving any major accomplishment, and another one where Mohamed Sharaf s character asks another Christians why they hate so much.
The two scenes are very confrontational and, alas, speak for the bigger part of Christians in Egypt. But because this is, after all, a movie, it never explains the cause behind this scorn and eventually plays down the extent and scope of the problem.
The film itself is just a mindless, fun flick at the end of the day. Nash at is an adroit director with a clear influence from Hitchcock and Kamal El Shiekh. Her desire to show off her skill can be sometimes pretentious and distracting though.
Although the Muslim/Christian conflict subplot is the main attraction, and the most intriguing aspect, of the film, it feels forced and Nash at is not bold enough yet to make a sound, loud statement.
The film ends with the usual let s all love one another message which entirely outdoes the initial idea behind the subplot, leads us into the preaching territory and, thus, disrespects its viewers.
Al Raheena, despite everything, will hopefully open the window for more serious treatment of this combustive topic.
Just don t expect another big action flick to do the trick.