Interview: Arabic filmmaker Maher Sabry

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In ‘All My Life’ (Toul Omri), Maher Sabry has ventured where no Arabic filmmaker has before. The film, which is undoubtedly the most daring and sexually explicit LGBT film ever to come out of the Arab world, tells the tale of 26-year-old Rami, an accountant living in Cairo.

Omar Hassan speaks to the filmmaker about the film’s inspiration; its public reception, as well as the greater issue of LGBT rights in the Arab-speaking world.

What inspired you to make All My Life?

The film was a reaction to the Queen Boat raid that took place in Cairo in 2001. The security police arrested 52 men for ‘deriding religion’ in Emergency State Security Courts, which are special courts that were established to try terrorists (and certainly do not meet international standards of justice). The newspaper coverage of these events was outrageous. Some even went as far as to suggest that these men were members of a Satanist group.

At that time, when I was trying to organise a defence group to help the arrested men, I was shocked to find that some of the human rights activists didn’t want to interfere in the case because they did not want to discredit their other work, which they considered more important. But what was more shocking to me was that there were gay men who passed judgment on the victims and even disassociated themselves from them.

It was then that I started writing the film.

What kind of pressures did you face getting the film made and financed?

After writing the script it was obvious that it would stay in my drawer forever if I didn’t make it myself. The subject matter meant that it wouldn’t get any support from Middle Eastern production companies. The second resort was to seek western funding and grants. But I brushed off this option because I wanted to make a movie for us by us [for an Arab audience by an Arab filmmaker]. The main reason for this decision is that government-controlled-media in our part of the world insist that homosexuality is a Western vice. If I made the film myself, they could not accuse my views of being Westernised.

For this reason I had to finance the film myself using my money, my credit cards and my friends and family’s credit cards in addition to loans and donations.

It was shot against overwhelming odds in Cairo and California, and it took three years to finish shooting.

Was it difficult to find actors and crew to work on the project?

Absolutely, professional actors (even the ones who sympathise with the subject matter) won’t play the roles because they are afraid of destroying their careers. I had to use amateur actors and people with no previous experience.

I depended on volunteer work and the assistance of the community. Shooting in the street in borrowed locations and the homes of my friends and actors. There wasn’t any crew, in the sense of the word, so the cast of the movie doubled as key grips, boom operators, set builders and refreshment servers.

All the Egyptian street scenes were shot guerrilla-style due to government restrictions on street filming.

What was your goal with the project? Was it to benefit the lives of the LGBT community in Egypt and the Middle East?

Visibility was my first goal. We are starved for images of ourselves. All of the LGBT characters in Egyptian cinema tend to be pathetic. I wanted to change this and also encourage a straight audience to find familiarity in the story.

Have you depicted or told LGBT stories in the past? In other theatre or film work? If so, how was it received?

I wrote and directed The Harem (El-Haramlek) in 1998, a play about the roles we [the LGBT community] play and the expectations people demand of us. It was received well on the three nights we performed it, before it was cancelled. We had a full house on the first two nights and on the third night (because we knew it was our last chance to perform), we let everyone in, so people were standing on the isles and sitting on the floor.

The reactions were positive, and even the gay and lesbian scenes were greeted with applause every time, despite the fact that the majority of the audience was straight.

Of course, theatre audiences are more liberal then the average film viewer.

How was the All My Life received by audiences and critics in Egypt and abroad?

Unfortunately, the film hasn’t been screened publicly in Egypt. There have been a few private screenings and that’s it. Yet, the ex-Mufti [A Mufti is a scholar of Islamic Law] of Egypt, Dr Fareed Wasel, called for the banning and “immediate burning” of the movie, even without seeing it.

At the same time, Dr. Zein el Abedeen, Egypt’s Anti-AIDS Program Director stated that the film was “a painful blow to all our efforts to combat the spread of HIV.”

So I find myself facing two authorities a religious one and a scientific one, both ignoring reason and issuing negative judgment that most people [in the Middle East] accept and adopt.

Did you receive any threatening or violent reactions after the film’s release?

I received hate emails calling me names and warning me of the wrath of God and promising me His Almighty punishment. Some recite verses from the Koran describing the day of doom or verses from the Koran that describe the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah and promise me a similar fate

One even said that I’d turn into a salt pillar like Lot’s wife because I promote homosexuality. I also received an email with verses from the bible in Arabic [informing me that] Jesus will love me if I repent the message.

On the other hand, I received many more emails thanking, praising and encouraging me from LGBTQ people of the Arabic-speaking world as well as from heterosexual members of the Arab community.

Do you think the film has struggled to find an audience because of its subject matter?

On the contrary, the film has sold out at every festival it has been screened at. The Arab LGBTQ communities around the world are starving to see themselves presented on screen, and the heterosexual Arab communities are curious as well.

What are your future plans for the film?

It is traveling around the festival circuits and I hope to be able to distribute it on DVDs. When the festivals are over, I believe it’ll be for sale on the sidewalks in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Riyadh like all banned films are (through video piracy). This way, I know I may not recoup the money I spent on the film, but at least I will have achieved self-fulfillment.

Do you think that film/the Arts can be used as a means to help protect and defend LGBT rights in the Middle East?

Yes, visibility is a main factor in fighting prejudice and bigotry against LGBT community and other minority groups. Film, theatre and other forms of art are some of the means that this visibility can transpire. Having the LGBT society on screen can make the issue familiar and what is familiar is not scary and what is not scary becomes humane and deserves rights.


Omar Hassan is a UK-based writer and freelance journalist. Born in Cairo, Egypt, he has lived in the USA and Saudi Arabia and currently resides in the United Kingdom