I enjoyed the long profile of Adel Iman in the Washington Post today. I mean, he hasn't made a decent movie in at least a decade, but maybe this will be his return to form. I actually met the guy once, which was - I can say with absolute certainty - far more memorable for me than for him. There was one part of the profile that I thought fell a bit short, though, or at least I would have liked to see more on. Imam is portrayed as a political iconoclast, a gadfly, and as a inveterate opponent of Islamism. The last, certainly, but the former kind of depends. The profile has this to say about Adel Imam's most prominent role in the last decade plus: al-Irhabi (The Terrorist):
Imam runs counter to the stereotype. He speaks out against terrorism. He played the lead in "The Terrorist," a film about a fugitive assassin who takes refuge with a family of well-off Muslims and has to hide his distaste for their lifestyle of unveiled women and Western music. The film was made under heavy police guard.
There's a bit more to al-Irhabi than that - it's a fascinating story, which deserves more attention than it gets in this profile. Al-Irhabi was produced in 1994 with private funding (probably Imam himself) as part of the Egyptian government's anti-Islamist campaign. As Walter Armbrust put it in a brilliant analysis of Egyptian films about Islamism a few years ago (in The American Anthropologist; couldn't find an online version to link to, sorry - an abbreviated version of the argument can be found here), "The Terrorist established new conventions for representing Islamists in the cinema. It was a privately funded film released in a coordinated government campaign against terrorism... The Terrorist, starring Egypt's foremost commercial actor and released in a blizzard of critical acclaim, was the crown jewel in the campaign."
In the movie, Imam plays a terrorist who, during the confusion of a bungled attack, ends up recovering on the couch of the kind of bourgeois, secular family who he most hates. He realizes that he was wrong about them, and bonds with the family over the Egyptian national football team (if I remember correctly, he tries and fails to bond with the family's daughter). After he's exposed, he tries to return to the family to plead his case and demonstrate that he's changed, but his terrorist ex-colleagues murder him. To call the narrative and presentation heavy-handed would do a disservice to heavy hands - Islamists are crude, uneducated, sexually repressed hypocrites and the secular bourgeoise is open-minded, well-intentioned, honest and true, with fervent patriotism ( the football team) the path to national unity and happiness.
The film offered a particularly crude interpretation of Islamism. To quote Armbrust again,
"In the end one overall imperative animates Terrorist: The Islamist cause must be situated firmly outside of modernity. The assassin hiding within the unsuspecting wealthy family is barely literate, unfamiliar with modern institutions, and essentially ignorant.... by reducing the Islamist movement to an easily manipulated fraction of the population completely ignorant of modernity... the film left no space for representing the activitis of Islamists inside the state's own institutions. One could not imagine the Islamist radicals of Terrorist as schoolteachers, lawyers, or doctors. It was precisely through such professions that the Islamist ideology was growing."
In other words, the film's portrayal fit within the regime's propaganda campaign but had little to do with the realities of Egyptian Islamism. Whether that makes it a better or worse film isn't really the point - it's just very interesting as a reflection of how the various parties involved (the government, Adel Imam) understood Islamism and/or wanted audiences to understand Islamism. It is one precursor of the anti-jihadi Ramadan serials which got so much attention earlier this year, and a premiere example of the entertainment industry joining in an anti-Islamist 'war of ideas.'
I'm not sure why the Post's profile didn't do more with this important part of Imam's career - it doesn't contradict the main lines of the profile, I don't think. I'm not sure this post has much more of a point than that...
(By the way, Armbrust's piece juxtaposes The Terrorist with the vastly superior Closed Doors, a movie I strongly recommend for all its flaws - well worth seeing).