More then 10 years ago, Lebanese filmmaker Jocelyne Saab set out to make a film in Egypt that seemed nearly impossible. The film, Dunia: Kiss Me Mot on the Eyes, follows a young female dancer named Dunia (Hanan Turk), who lives in Cairo, and is studying at the University with a blind philosophy professor (Mohamed Mounir) who has been persecuted by religious fundamentalists. Between studying with him and studying belly dance Dunia realizes that she has been cut off from her ability to express herself by a patriarchal society that still promotes female circumcision, and which condemns self-expression in the name of religion.
The process of making Dunia was a difficult one. Director Saab first had difficulty even getting permission to film in Egypt and then once she did, she was blocked at every turn. Even the actors found it difficult. And in fact the beautiful Hanan Turk, who played Dunia, retired from acting completely after first donning a headscarf, shortly after this film was released amid great controversy.
In a statement for the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, at which Dunia made its US premiere, Saab explained: ” The struggles and difficulties surrounding the making of Kiss Me Not on the Eyes were unfortunately of epic proportions…. [My] main challenges were: To obtain permission to shoot the film on location in Cairo, Egypt as the censorship body fought the scenario fiercely… Considering it to be pornographic. [After the] permission was obtained, the next challenge was to set up production, which usually is quite a task, and being weighed down by such controversy only made it harder. Then came finding actors, who had to be convinced of assuming responsibilities for their roles. It was a long and hard process as all [the actors were] concerned about their reputation and also their safety. I would love to write and direct a modern, highly stylized and political musical, based on the paradigms of Western and Arabic musicals-modernized, combined, with artists from both worlds singing together. Maybe the graceful look I carry from the east, beyond the veil of clichés that usually stigmatizes the occidental point-of-view, will allow the orient to be restored in its just and rightful place and value. We have to dare to do what the film is doing now. If we hide and switch ourselves off because we do not want to be slapped, we will not be able to express who we are and what our heritage is. Westerners look at us in a disgusting way, we need to fix this. My excitement was beyond words. I was being fought by everyone for daring to dream and realizing this film, and all of a sudden, the best thing that could ever happen to me, happened – professional recognition by the beacon festival of independent cinema.”
The resulting film is revelatory and astonishing. Although it certainly is not an explicit film by Western standards, it was in Egypt, where it was called pornographic by the authorities for its sensual dance sequences and for its focus on female sexuality. From a Western perspective, however, it is still an unusual film. This is not just because it is an Arab film, but because even in the West we rarely have films that tell stories with such attention to the role of female sexuality in women’s rights. But even apart from its feminist context, Saab’s film discusses the importance of sexuality for all people as a route to freedom; the inner life impacts the outer life and its struggles. When we are cut off from our sexuality, we cannot really know ourselves. And if we don’t know ourselves we are not really free.
In an interview in the bookEncyclopedia of Arab Women Filmakers by Rebecca Hillauer, Saab explains why this story met with such strong opposition at the Dubai international Film Festival in 2005 as well as in the public sphere in Egypt.
“For a young girl of 23, becoming a dancer is something normal everywhere in the world. It is an artistic job; it is Art. But this is not true in the Middle East where becoming a dancer means becoming a whore. As if this is not enough, Dunia has another problem, and this was the main dramatic aspect of my subject. We discover slowly through the course of the film that she has been excised. I had discovered that 97% of the women in Egypt were still excised. When I began to write the script, people all around said, “you are crazy to touch the subject. We are going to have trouble.” But I decided to go on.
The script for Dunia won great acclaim before the film was made. But still it was difficult for Saab to produce this film because of its content. “Two years ago, I had received a prize for the script in Paris. But afterward I couldn’t find a producer, because nobody wanted to deal with the subject of female sexuality – neither in Europe nor in the Middle East,” she explains. “Nobody imagined that I could shoot it. Even intellectuals and artists are afraid to talk about this subject, because Islamic fundamentalism is present all over the Middle East and the Arab region. I thought it was time to face the problems instead of going on hiding them like family secrets you shouldn’t talk about. I decided to produce the film on my own. That was when my troubles began.”
Her battles with censorship began right from the beginning. “The censorship board in Cairo took the scenario – and kept it for months. Then they gave their refusal and sent it – which is very unusual – to the press. That’s how I learned I had been rejected – when I read the newspapers one morning. They said my film was anti-Islamic, pornographic, and anti-Egyptian. All these accusations just because I was talking about sexuality? Some magazines however defended me. Amongst them Rose al-Yusuf, a very old and serious newspaper found it in the 1930s by a woman. The official press also sided with me. A fight set in between these papers and the Islamist press. Only after letters of support from artists and producers all over the world, for instance from the German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, and an audience with Pres. Hosni Mubarak, was I allowed to make an appeal – and it passed.”
But her troubles did not end there. She still had to find actors willing to take on such a controversial film. “The actors read the scenario, and got scared. They said, ‘you are a foreigner, you leave after the shooting, you will not have problems, but we will lose our career.’”
I selected Dunia as one of the first films shown in our Cape Cod Festival of Arab and Middle Eastern Cinema back in 2012. I am pleased to have the opportunity to show it again this Saturday, March 28 at 2 p.m. at the Chatham public library in Chatham, Mass. At this free screening we will not only watch the film and discuss it but I will give more details about the upcoming festival, which happens this year April 30 – May 3 in venues from Dennis to Provincetown.