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Movie About Egypt's Christian Coptic Minority Raises Eyebrows - 2004-07-15

A movie focusing exclusively on Egypt's Christian Coptic minority and featuring Laila Elwi in a leading role, is sparking controversy, and may land the director in court.

A coalition of Coptic community members and clergymen has filed a formal complaint with the office of the prosecutor general, demanding that the film, I Love the Cinema (Baheb Es-Sinema), be withdrawn because it demeans religion, the church, and the clergy.

The movie chronicles the life of a Coptic family in Cairo's Shubra neighborhood in 1966. The father is particularly devout, and views his young son's obsession with the movies as sinful. It also includes an adulterous wife and kissing by an unmarried couple inside a church.

Director Osama Fawzy believes the strong reaction to the movie is partly due to the fact that it is unusual for Christians to see themselves in leading roles.

?In the first, I was thinking that [it was] because maybe they did not use to see Christian characters in Egyptian movies for a long time,? Mr. Fawzy said. ?I mean, we have been doing films [for] more than 70 years; since the beginning of cinema, we are doing movies. It was rare to find a Christian character in any of these movies, and if you find one, it is not a main character or a main role.?

Mr. Fawzy is a Copt who converted to Islam when he married. He said he planned on retiring from the movie business, but denied it was because of the potential lawsuit.

Coptic cleric Father Morkos Aziz Khalil, who is leading the legal challenge, says the movie goes against the Coptic Church and its beliefs.

Father Morkos says the movie denigrates the Coptic practice of fasting by implying that a husband's fasting and abstaining from sex leads to his wife's adultery. Father Morkos also complains about scenes in which a priest is hit with a shoe and a young boy urinates in church.

Father Morkos said the Coptic clergy should be consulted about movies such as I Love Cinema, and should have the same rights as Al-Azhar, the Muslim institution that reviews and censors all books, films and works of art that deal with Islam.

Coptic writer and intellectual Milad Hanna called Mr. Fawzy's movie courageous and deeply philosophical. He added that the debate it has stirred is a good thing, and should not be carried out in court.

"It is a cultural issue, not a legal issue,? Mr. Hanna said. ?Had the film touched the creed of the Copts, the Christian creed, the trinity, Jesus Christ or whatever, they would have been justified to make a legal action."

Egyptian cinema has a long and distinguished history. In the 1950s, directors such as Youssef Chahine and Salah Abu-Seif produced classics that were watched across the Arab world.

The Coptic screenwriter of I Love Cinema, Hany Fawzy Kozman, said that the current state of the Egyptian film industry has made audiences unprepared for a serious film.

Mr. Kozman said Egyptian audiences are unused to films that address subjects openly. He said most movies these days are conservative and hypocritically devout, and tell people that they are living in the best of possible worlds. A movie that is frank, unusual or realistic causes people a painful shock.

Coptic Christians represent five to 10 percent of Egypt's population.

The prosecutor general will rule by the end of this month on whether the case against Mr. Fawzy and his movie will be allowed to proceed.