VENICE (Reuters) - The makers of an Egyptian film exploring the subjugation of women across the Middle East say they have won widespread praise as well as deeply personal criticism since the movie was released.
“Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story,” screened at the Venice film festival outside the main competition, tells the story of Hebba, a successful talk-show host whose husband urges her to steer clear of politics in order to forward his own career.
As the deputy editor of a state-run newspaper in Cairo, Karim has been told by officials he is in line for the top job as long as his wife tones down the provocative content of her popular television slot.
But by inviting women to tell their personal, tragic stories, she unwittingly exposes fundamental flaws in Egyptian society where, the film argues, women are treated as sexual trophies and used and abused as men see fit.
When a man who tricks one of the women in order to extort money turns out to be a senior party figure, Hebba’s comfortable life and seemingly perfect marriage begin to fall apart.
Director Yousry Nasrallah told reporters in Venice that the backlash to Scheherazade, named after the fictional storyteller in “One Thousand and One Nights” had come not from the censors but from “fundamentalist and conservative trends in society.
“The only thing the censors object to was the last shot of the abortion scene which we had to cut out,” he said. “The problems didn’t come from censorship.”
Lead actress Mona Zaki, as Hebba, has borne the brunt of the criticism, some of which she said was unjustifiably personal.
“It shocked me, although I did know that I would be attacked,” she said.
“It was too harsh, it was too judgmental, it was more on my personal relationship (with my husband) than on my work. It was more to do with Egyptian culture than the movie.”
Zaki added that she drew comfort from the many positive responses to the movie, which she said carried an important message about how women were treated in the Middle East.
Reaction in Venice has been broadly positive, with Screen International’s review saying: “Surprisingly, if there are any objects of desire in this film, they are male rather than female which throws an unexpected light on sexual relations in Egypt.”
In Egypt, Joseph Fahim of the Daily News Egypt called it one of the country’s most important movies of the decade.
“Scheherazade is a film that Egypt thoroughly needs; a wake-up call to the sordid world our leaders, religious guides and fathers have created,” he wrote.
In production notes for the movie, Nasrallah said that as well as addressing “the misogyny prevailing in Egyptian society,” his aim was to put women back at the center of Egyptian cinema which marginalized them for more than 20 years.
Editing by Steve Addison