The film by director Amir Ramses raised a dilemma over security versus artistic freedom at a time when the rise of conservative Islamist voices has sharpened religious and cultural differences. The documentary explores the life of Egypt’s Jewish community before the second Arab-Israeli war in 1956.
"Jews of Egypt on the 27th of March in movie theatres," director Amir Ramses wrote on Twitter. "We won the war against national security...we got the permit."
The filmmakers had been pressing authorities to hasten the documentary's release, when two days before the intended premier on March 13, officials demanded to view it again. The film had been shown in festivals abroad but officials worried that the title might arouse passions in an already volatile atmosphere marked by civil disobedience and violent demonstrations against President Mohamed Morsi.
The film’s creators argued on Facebook that they had been granted permission to show the movie. They said the postponement was a continuation of the state’s repression against freedom of thought and expression.
National security officials “told me that the film's title could create a lot of distress [given] the country's general circumstances,” Abdelsattar Fathi, director of the cultural ministry’s censorship committee, told Al-Ahram news website.
Egyptian-Israeli relations are a sensitive topic, especially after the 2011 overthrow of secular autocrat Hosni Mubarak and the rise of an Islamist-led government. Morsi once referred to Jews as “descendants of apes and pigs.” Anti-Israeli sentiments run deep and attempts at normalization have continually failed despite the 1979 peace agreement between the countries.
Egyptian artists and writers who have suggested stronger cultural ties to Israel have been condemned at home. In December, Essam El Erian, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, was vilified by conservatives and liberals alike when he stated that he would welcome the return of Egyptian Jews who left for Israel after the 1956 Arab-Israeli war.
“It came to my attention that many can’t distinguish between the word Jewish and the word Zionist,” Ramses posted on his Facebook page. He said the documentary seeks to “correct this image about Judaism,” and explore how thousands of “Jews, Christians, Muslims, even Italians and Greeks lived together without phobias.”
One actor mentioned in the film, Laila Mourad, was born of Jewish parents in the 1920s and became one of the most celebrated faces in Arab cinema history. Ramses is a self-proclaimed fan, as are countless Egyptians. But in the film’s trailer, snippets of street interviews reveal the complicated feelings Egyptians have separating art from their hatred of Israel.
“Laila Mourad is good,” an old man says in the film. “She’s also Jewish? Then she’s not good.”
The idea behind the documentary was born in 2008, a few years before the Arab Spring uprising would recast the region’s political dynamics. Production stopped during the 2011 protests against Mubarak, resuming in 2012. The film was then selected by the European film festival and the Arab camera film festival in winter of 2012, as well as the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January.
Ramses and producer Haitham El-Khameesy told Egyptian media that they self-funded the film to avoid any ideological pressure from sponsors. In an interview last month, the director said he was saddened by the fragmentation and racism he sees in Egyptian society today and hopes his film can lead to cultural and religious understanding.
Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman contributed to this report.