Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah, in Cannes with an Arab Spring drama, defiantly vowed Thursday that the Islamists jockeying for power back home would never succeed in stifling art.
“In a context where cinema is being attacked as a sin in Egypt by so-called Islamist parties, this film is not so much a political commitment as a commitment to cinema,” he said after a press screening of “After the Battle”.
Artists and liberals in the Arab state are concerned that the Islamists who have emerged as the strongest political force in the new Egypt will seek to curtail artistic freedom.
“Our presence here in Cannes is a wonderful message to all those who want to put an end to art in Egypt,” Nasrallah said, translating from Arabic the words of lead actor Bassem Samra, who sat next to him at a festival press conference.
Veteran director Nasrallah’s two-hour film focuses on the messy aftermath of last year’s Arab Spring, when Cairo’s Tahrir Square was the epicentre of a revolt that led to the ousting of long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak.
The movie, the sole overtly political work among the 22 films competing for the Palme d’Or top prize, kicks off with what came to be known as the Battle of the Camel, when men on horses and camels charged into the crowd of protestors.
It then hones in on one of the riders, anti-revolutionary Mahmoud, played by Samra, and his complicated interaction with a middle-class, free-thinking young woman called Reem, played by Mena Shalaby.
The film touches on issues like class, gender and corruption and provides a portrait of the people of Nazlet, who live in the shadow of the pyramids and traditionally made their living off the tourist trade that dried up after the revolution.
Nasrallah told reporters here that he had funding in place for a film before last year’s revolution, but when the demonstrations started he realised he had to make a movie about it instead.
“Our emotions were focused on these events and I saw that this was the film,” said the director.
He set to work on the Egyptian-French co-production without a script and persuaded his actors to take part without knowing where their roles would take them.
Last year’s Cannes festival saw the controversial film “18 Days” premiered during a day honouring Egypt and its revolution.
The film, consisting of 10 shorts by different directors, covers the popular revolt that began on January 25 and led up to the fall of Mubarak’s regime after more than 30 years in power.
Egypt’s first post-revolution presidential elections are due on May 23-24, with the contest narrowing down to a choice between secularists linked to the old guard and Islamists who hope to repeat their success in parliamentary elections after Mubarak’s ouster.
Hardline Islamists have frequently used the country’s courts to punish movie directors and artists whom they accuse of insulting Islam.