Essay from Jaylan Salah

Young woman with light skin and straight brown hair, brown eyes and some lipstick

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 comradery 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 villainy behavior. Gay and queer characters have been shown as thieves, sexual harassers, usually meet 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 the strictly defining context but owing to the sexual liberation of the late-era where gender and sexual identity as a fixated concept leave a way for a more fluid gender and sexual representation.

Mercedes – Oedipus, shrugged

Starting with “Mercedes”, the main protagonist Nobi finds himself on a quest to find his brother. His journey takes him inside a gay movie theater surrounded by gay men who freely embrace and makeout 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 adds to the mystery of the moment on film. After finding out 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. Phallocentrism is the driving theme in Mercedes, a tale of Oedipal love and loss in the capital, one of the key themes that plagued Youssef Chahine’s –Nasrallah’s mentor- mind in addition to queerness, sexuality, the relationship between the East and the West and with the Other. 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.

One of the prominent figures in “Mercedes” are the two lesbian lovers,  Nasrallah subverted expectation by making the Muslim character the sidekick to the Christian one, 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 multiple personality disorder patient who practices daily catharsis for the character of her repressed mother through impersonating a promiscuous alter-ego. 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, the 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 somewhere outside the Arab world where homoeroticism on the big screen should only be 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 the early ones. In more than one shot, we see the camera zooming on the faces of two men entangled in an ambiguous relationship, even 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 sideglances 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”, 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’s 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 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 when Yasser hugged Leil in the darkness of the fields, threw back a shade to what was perceived as an innocent childhood friendship, to be analyzed through a different lens.

Later projects – Less daring, more structured narrative

Even in his most commercial project to date “Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces” Nasrallah hints at homoeroticism through the characters of Reda International the gypsy vagabond, and Galal the cook. 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 the gypsies a favor. Ashour is then punished by castration, mirroring his non-compliance with the gypsy’s sexual advances, which could be a bold move within the narrative to punish a heterosexual character to be for refusing to indulge in a homosexual relationship; giving the queer character, the upper, more dominant hand, if albeit queer-coded. Although the actual reason for Ashour’s castration is stated 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 gypsy’s sexual advances.