The Yacoubian Building

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

6 October

Anwar Sadat assassinated, 1981

On this day in 1981, the 62-year-old president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by an army officer. Hit 37 times, Sadat was dealt the fatal blow by a ricochet bullet. In his 11 years as president he had gone to war against Israel, resulting in the return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt, then surprised many by formally recognising Israel, the first country to do so from the Arab world (though call an Egyptian an Arab and see what they say). Sadat also broke with his predecessor, Nasser, by instituting a multi-party system of government, switched the political allegiance of his country from the USSR to the USA and denationalised many institutions, in the process opening his country up to external investment. This “Infitah” was in effect Sadat’s Glasnost. So was it the overtures to Israel or the free market reforms that got him killed? Or was it a reaction to his heavy-handed suppression of unrest, which had resulted in the mass arrest largely of Islamists, but also of activists of other persuasions? Responsibility is contested, but two Islamic groups – Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Gama’a Islamiyya (aka the Islamic Group) – fight it out for the honours. The assassination killed 11 others and wounded 28, including Vice President Hosni Mubarak, who went on to succeed Sadat. The assassin, Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, was tried, found guilty and executed by firing squad.

The Yacoubian Building (2006, dir: Marwan Hamen)

At the time the most expensive film ever made in the country, this adaptation of Alaa Al-Aswany’s best-selling novel is a slice through Egyptian life focusing on the eponymous building. Once grand, in 1990 it’s now a bit shabby. As are the people who orbit it. Men in particular. And what a bunch they are, seedy middle aged men who, like the building, have seen better days and are now obsessed with shoring themselves up against complete dilapidation – one is dying his hair, another is having wet dreams and is so surprised by it that he goes to the doctor (or is he there to boast?). Unlike many examples of “world” cinema, The Yacoubian Building has a real homegrown feel, doesn’t come across as if it has been made by foreign educated individuals who have returned home to “make their movie”. There is a downside to this – the style can drift into soapy melodrama, some of the attitudes (to gay men, for example) will hardly be winning prizes for progressive political attitudes. But it is all captured in gorgeous, hyper-stylised colours, as if Wong Kar-Wei had stopped off in Cairo on holiday. And its ragged mix of political positions, progressive and conservative worldviews, new and old cultures, is exactly what it’s all about – the struggle for Egypt to become modern, in the teeth of the feeling that to embrace the new, to battle corruption, empower women and accept homosexuals is also to accept prostitution, drugs and vice and to abandon the glory of the old. A powerful, complex film.

Why Watch?

  • How many films from Egypt have you seen?
  • Beautifully shot, exquisitely played
  • A fascinating attempt to be fair to both parties in the progressive/conservative heave-ho
  • A box-office smash in its native Egypt

The Yacoubian Building – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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