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Posters featuring the actress Mona Zaki loom above a ring road in Cairo.
Posters featuring the actress Mona Zaki loom above a ring road in Cairo.

Egypt divided by film of beaten wife

Reviewers and former fans target the actress Mona Zaki as they disparage a new movie that explores the suffering of women in contemporary Cairo.

CAIRO // In a poignant moment in one of this summer's most talked-about films, the host of a TV programme that focuses on the rights of women appears on screen covered in bruises."I just survived being beaten to death. I'm the programme's oppressed and beaten guest. I never imagined that I, who tell people's tales, could become a tale myself," the TV presenter, Heba Younis, says in the final scene of Tell it, Scheherazade. The film addresses women's rights, their dreams and their suffering, contemporary topics in such a male-dominated society as Egypt, but it has drawn criticism from reviewers and on the internet, with most of it directed at the actress Mona Zaki, who plays Younis.The criticism started when a trailers of the film showed Zaki being kissed on the neck by her on-screen husband."We adored Mona Zaki, her art, bashfulness and her respect for us. She was the model of clean art, therefore our disappointment and anger are huge because we loved her so much," wrote Mohammed Adel on a Facebook group against the film."We lost you, Mona," lamented Mahmoud Amer, another former fan on Facebook.Zaki, in her early 30s, had been hailed as an icon of "clean cinema", in which there is no kissing, show of intimacy between sexes or revealing clothing and which has appealed to the largely conservative society here.But the film critic Magda Khirallah said the criticism was unfounded. "Mona Zaki is an actress not a saint," she said. Ahmed Helmi, Zaki's husband and also an actor, was even forced to phone The House is Yours, a prime-time TV talk show, to refute rumours that he and his wife had split because of the film. The movie was written by the populist scriptwriter Wahid Hamed and directed by Yousry Nasrallah, more of an art house director who has been addressing women's issues for more than 15 years but until now has received little popular acclaim. It is the first co-operation between the two and nearly three weeks into its release, Tell it, Scheherazade is already a box office hit. According to Cinema Chamber, which is in charge of cinema incomes, the movie has taken in six million Egyptian pounds (Dh4m) since it opened June 24, which is high by Egyptian standards. "Yousry Nasrallah, one of Egypt's greatest filmmakers, has crafted not only this year's best Egyptian film of the year so far, but one of the most important movies of the decade. A brilliantly provoking, fierce and audacious cinematic document about Egyptian women," wrote the film critic Joseph Fahim in the Daily News Egypt recently.The film focuses on the relationship between Younis and her husband, Karim Hassan, played by Hassan al Raddad.The young, beautiful, rich and successful couple seem to have it all. But that begins to change when Younis starts to discover things about herself, her husband and their relationship through her interviews with other women. At first she presents a political programme, but is forced to change focus after complaints from the bosses at the government-run newspaper where her husband hopes to become editor. So Younis shifts to social and women's issues and interviews three women whose stories open her eyes to her own relationship.The first story is of Amany, a middle-aged, middle-class, dreamy idealist who refuses to marry except for love and who is shocked to discover that many marriages are based not on love but on an agreement, which entails compromises by women just to have the title of being married.She lives, by choice, in a psychiatric hospital "where everyone plays their own tune, without disharmony," she tells Younis in the interview. The second story, which is based on fact, is about three lower-income sisters in their 20s and 30s who live together after they inherit their father's shop.Each sister, unbeknown to the others, becomes intimately involved with their young employee, who in turn promises to marry each one. When they finally discover the deception, the elder sister kills the employee and subsequently spends 15 years in prison. The third story is of Nahed, a dentist from a well-to-do family who falls in love with a businessman who manipulates her into sleeping with him before their official wedding. Although they are already married on paper, the businessman leaves her when she gets pregnant and demands a payment of three million pounds for a divorce. Nahed has an abortion and takes the businessman to court, gaining a divorce without having to pay him anything. "Actually they are four, not three, stories, as with every interview Heba Younis discovers that her marriage is falling apart and that she doesn't have much in common with her husband, who only cares about his career and doesn't appreciate hers or her compromises to save the marriage," said Nasrallah, the director.When Hassan is overlooked for the editor's role at the paper he blames it on Younis's "silly programme" and starts to beat her. Younis, having become mentally stronger through her interviews, hits back and does not hide her bruises when she next appears on television. One audience, mostly women, were mixed in their reaction."I came to the movie to watch Mona Zaki," said Christine Nagy, 30, who is single and a manager at a medical office. "But unfortunately, I'm surprised that the whole movie is about sex and spinsterhood and that women are only concerned with these two issues, which is not true. I don't know what the aim of this movie is." Nagwa Atwa, 60, a veiled housewife and mother of three, said she loved it. "I really liked how it handles sexual issues, and that if sex is not based on real love, even between married couples, it could be destructive."I loved the message and the type of women that the film portrayed. They all, including the TV presenter, managed to overcome their weaknesses, and with their strong will, were able to start anew. I like that." nmagd@thenational.ae

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