Homoeroticism in Yousry Nasrallah’s Cinema
“A recent tendency in narrative film has been to dispense with this problem altogether; hence the development of what Molly Haskell has called the “buddy movie” in which the active homosexual eroticism of the central male figures can carry the story without distraction”
- Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema
The idea of camaraderie or buddy-relationship has been a smart ploy in cinema to get away with queer innuendos and homosexuality without facing the scissors of the censor or the disapproval of an alleged heteronormative audience. What if Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis decided to kiss in The Defiant Ones? What would the reaction of the audience be back then in the late fifties? Fast-forward and buddy-movies are still a thing in the Egyptian cinema. Some of them are just there for kicks, while others hide layers of subtextual relationships.
Unless blatantly scrutinized or demonized, homosexuality in Egyptian films and TV has been only been explored through a negative lens where the queer character appears as an abnormal, raging bull-type that attacks whoever it encounters or is associated with negative villainous behavior. Gay and queer characters have been shown as thieves and sexual harassers, usually meeting their doom at the end or are shown to be redeemed and cleansed as heterosexual and thus worthy of being saved.
Yousry Nasrallah’s queer characters do not define their sexuality overtly. Their ambiguity does not stem from the need to hide within any strictly defining context but owing to the sexual liberation of the late-era where gender and sexual identity as a fixated concept was abandoned in favor of more fluid gender and sexual representation.
Mercedes – Oedipus, shrugged
Starting with Mercedes, the main protagonist Nobi finds himself on a quest to find his gay brother who was kicked out by their homophobic father years ago. His journey takes him inside a gay movie theater surrounded by gay men who freely embrace and make out inside the dark movie theater. On the big screen is a film showing two fencers hitting at each other in a fencing competition. The choice of a film showing this particular sport would be a clever way for Nasrallah to use the multiple erotic undertones of the swordsmen in their unrevealing clothing, their masks, and their gender-neutral movements which add to the mystery of this moment on film. After discovering his brother in the middle of the crowd, the scene cuts abruptly to a funeral in a church for the Upper-class Coptic community, in a swift move that puts queer romance as an opposite to death, as if to symbolize how the rich Copts (representing the religious bourgeois of the Egyptian society) who hide behind traditions are dead inside while the impoverished (queers) whose moments of passion are in the dark, feel more alive than them.
Nasrallah uses his background as an aristocratic Christian from a family well-endowed with art and tradition to create an Oedipal-phallic world in Mercedes, a tale of Oedipal love and loss in the capital. Nasrallah borrows from the key themes that plagued Youssef Chahine’s — Nasrallah’s mentor — mind such as queerness, sexuality, how the West sees the East, the Other whether a different religion, sexual expression, or nationality, and Oedipal relationships. Nasrallah uses one of Chahine’s muses, Yousra, the Egyptian diva and highly influential female actress, as the central female protagonist of the film and one of the factors of the Oedipal dimer. Using one of Egypt’s most iconic feminine and sexual figures not only adds to the weight of the film but ensures that it carries the multilayered story which Nasrallah tries to present. Yousra as a figure of motherhood has long been toyed with, consumed, and reincarnated in films and TV because the actress in real life has publicly confessed to struggling with fertility and multiple miscarriages. This iconic woman has been vocal about her vulnerabilities as much as her impossible beauty standards, and that in a way, granted her lasting presence in the hearts of Egyptian and Arab audiences.
In a way, Mercedes removes the male figure from the heterosexual relationship, so that the Oedipal dimer remains intact with only two central monomers; the mother and the son infatuated by their sole existence. The mother-son relationship kicks the male figure out of the picture and despite that not being a component of the queer film theory, Nasrallah most likely defies it by making Yousra (a woman whose lack of motherhood in real life and her public expression of that) play a mother figure within a complex Oedipal relationship. Nasrallah’s use of phallic symbols is as swift as the way he uses fans to represent a visual motif for the demise of the aristocracy, the lack of social acceptance within the elitist groups, and boredom.
Two of the prominent figures in Mercedes are the lesbian lovers Raeefa and Nariman. Nasrallah subverted expectation by making the Muslim character, Nariman, the sidekick to the Christian woman, Raeefa, contrary to the norm in Egyptian cinema where Muslim characters are upfront and Christian characters are secondary to them, serving on their stories.
In one scene, Nobi is watching The Well of Deprivation a movie about a woman with multiple personality disorder. The Well of Deprivation is a psychodrama about a repressed woman living in a repressed household with an authoritative father figure, instead of rebelling against his maltreatment of her mother including her sexual oppression, the young woman practices daily catharsis for her repressed mother through impersonating a promiscuous alter-ego. She becomes a dame du jour, every night, and in the morning she’s back as the docile, submissive daughter, along with her obedient mother, until the fiery, sexually liberated character decides to take over the weakened one. Both personalities of the woman could be seen in light of the two central women in Nobi’s life; his mother Warda, and Afifa, her double who looks exactly like her and enters Nobi’s life to confuse him even further.
The dual nature of the other/the twin could be seen in the film in addition to the virgin/mother/crone complex through the women whom Nobi encounters on his journey to self-discovery. Starting with the stranger with whom he has a brief encounter in the wedding reception, Afifa the virgin belly dancer who is his mother’s clone, and his mother Warda who is the source of his great Oedipal agony.
The City – Boys will be horny
In the first scene of his 2000 film The City, Nasrallah shows the male protagonist Ali eyeing a hypersexual, salt-of-the-earth woman with lust. It is later revealed that Nasrallah uses Ali as his muse, on the footsteps of his mentor director Youssef Chahine, Nasrallah used the actor who played his alter-ego in Mercedes to play a version of himself in a film that coyly uses the artist/muse complex to explore themes about art, creation, the nature of homoerotic relationships, and fluid sexuality. The same Ali who lustfully eyes the woman in the first scene is the one whose character is the center of the complex relationship verse.
Nasrallah’s homosexual tension is at its best when male characters revert to camaraderie. He shows us a group of boys existing in a male-dominated world and enjoying male-friendly activities: in a circle sharing a joint, swimming naked, and passing around dirty jokes. His queer world is not a sci-fi verse, these boys are the byproduct of the average masculine culture, they just happen to take further interest in each other. In some instances, Nasrallah’s characters share a rare moment of passion — such as in The City when the camera closes-up on Osama’s hand lingering on Ali’s shoulder after a friendly, non-sexual embrace, layering the moment with erotic undertones. In another scene, Osama cuts off his hair — which he takes pride in throughout the movie — to give as a token to Ali who plans on traveling to Paris. It symbolizes their intense relationship as buddies masquerading their homoerotic undertones. Osama and Ali’s intense friendship/love story could have been assumed as queerbaiting, had this film been situated somewhere outside the Arab world where homoeroticism on the big screen is only approved when represented menacingly.
Nasrallah’s use of close-ups usually hints at the underlying homosexual relationship or tension between the main protagonist and another male character, especially in early scenes. In more than one shot, we see the camera zooming on the faces of two men entangled in an ambiguous relationship, even for a moment. In Mercedes, there is a close-up on ex-policeman Mohamed Taher’s lips and the face of Nobi, the main protagonist. In The City, scenes featuring buddies Osama and Ali make use of camera angles to emphasize their complex relationship. Whereas Osama seems desperately in love with Ali, unable to eye any other character in the film with the same passion and fervor that he saves for Ali, the latter adopts a more liberated, non-restricting sexual behavior, having a girlfriend, flirting with men and women alike while keeping a soft spot for Osama. The camera uses a fetishistic approach to their deep dark eyes, their feet, and their hands — especially in the intimate scene where they share a joint and when the whole gang is swimming in the Nile, singing and drinking beer — the side-glances that they exchange tell a million stories. In one scene reminiscent of the confessional by the bonfire in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, Osama almost confesses his love for Ali, the pansexual with a strong heterosexual commitment that he seems careless to consummate.
The movie ends with Ali abandoning everybody: his girlfriend, his unrequited lover Osama, and even his dream of living abroad. He commits to his art; the only thing that gives him freedom.
Summersaults - A Summer’s Sunny Dream
In his debut Summersaults (also referred to as Summer Thefts), Youssef Chahine’s influence is obvious on Nasrallah’s visual style and close-ups. The alternating gaze from male to female, with lingering shots on beautiful male bodies and faces, are in deep contrast with the scene of fellatio simulation when Yasser, the protagonist, licks blood off a peasant girl’s finger. Her face shows expressions of pleasure mimicking a woman receiving pleasure from a man. Her line “You are disgusting,” reflects how women from conservative societies usually associate sexual acts with grossness, in an attempt to make them less appealing or desired.
Yasser’s friendship with Leil, the peasant boy who taught him how to steal casual pleasures from an extended, boring life, is only a tale of forbidden summer romance between two kids. If My Girl was the bittersweet coming-of-age love story of the 90s, Ali and Leil’s summer awakening has been nothing short of unrequited, and bittersweet. Summersaults may be a great sociopolitical critique of the Egyptian aristocracy in the 60s, but it’s also a tale of love that lived longer than the houses and the lands of the rich. At its core, this movie was milder in terms of homoerotic subtext, but the ending scene, in which Yasser hugged Leil in the darkness of the fields, felt like a neo-noir scene where everybody was a sinner, and unrequited love could only mean trouble for all parties involved.
Later projects – Less daring, more structured narrative
Even in his latest commercial project Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces, Nasrallah creates hints at homoeroticism through two characters: Reda International, the vagabond, and Galal the cook. Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces is an intricate, complex family drama, inspired by the style of Italian comedy-dramas. There are multiple characters, interconnected affairs, passionate encounters, and inconsistent storytelling, but the film’s heterosexual narrative is sidetracked by one notable guest character: Reda International, whom the characters seek for illegal business.
In a steamy scene around campfire, Reda suggests that Galal marries his sister, looking lustfully at Galal, then pecking him on the cheek. The scene carries multiple layers especially when Reda approaches another character, Ashour seductively to imply that to get his stolen paperwork he has to do a favor. The scene is complex, especially since Reda International is a forced character that only appears briefly after the viewers have been fully immersed in the lives of brothers Galal and Reffat, the cooks, and only see a glimpse of Ashour’s journey as he falls in love with Faten, the sister of the wealthiest man in town. As the plot progresses, Ashour is then punished by castration, mirroring his non-compliance with Reda’s sexual advances, which could be a bold — perhaps even queer-coded — move within the narrative to punish a heterosexual character for refusing to indulge in a homosexual relationship, giving the queer character, the upper, more dominant hand. Although the actual reason for Ashour’s castration is shown as taking the honor of a virginal girl from a rich family — through marrying her behind her family’s back — the act of castration comes as a response to his defiance in the face of the Reda’s sexual advances. If the punishment did not have a sexual nature, one would have thought that Ashour was only being pursued for falling for the girl from the wrong family, but since his death was due to mutilation of the genitalia, and since it was not explicitly shown whether only his testicles were removed or the penis as well. The punishment as “emasculation” is too extreme of a method for a man who sinned with a woman, but it throws a shade on Reda the vagabond and his dissatisfaction with how Ashour subverted his flirtation, and indirect offer to give him sexual pleasures.
It took me a while to fall in love with Yousry Nasrallah’s films. His themes were cryptic, his messages unclear, his cinematography too structured for my taste which relinquishes the poetic cinema movement. I probably started wrong; with his commercial hits Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story, After the Battle, Mercedes, Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces; then I delved further into his experimental films The Aquarium, The City, and Summersaults. I loved his earlier films which were doused in details, intricate intimate moments and young, sweaty boys; not just casting glances but exchanging words, embraces, and tokens. But I always compared him to Youssef Chahine, probably because they were among the rare directors who dared to represent queer lives onscreen. Instead of using this in his favor, I twisted his themes, grilled his characters, and tried to search for theatrical scenes in his creations, but unlike Chahine, Nasrallah was is very low-key; he plays on the subtlety of human connection, the things that cameras do not capture, and, yet, the effect of its lasting stolen pleasure lingers for a long time afterward. I fell in love with Nasrallah’s films like falling asleep, slowly, then all at once.