Film Review: Yacoubian Building

by Melora Koepke, Canada
Aug 9 2007

Cairo story

Yacoubian Building has lots to recommend it, but not as a movie

Egyptian director Marwan Hamed was only 28 when he directed Yacoubian
Building, his first film, from a popular novel from his native land
that traces the intertwined lives of several residents of one of
Cairo’s formerly grand edifices, the titular Yacoubian building,
which was built by an Armenian architect in 1934.

The film boasts the most expensive shooting budget for any film ever
made in Egypt, and features many of that country’s most famous and
beloved actors. The story is also groundbreaking because it provides
a never-before-seen portrait of a secular Muslim society, and explores
themes such as political corruption, religious differences, abortion,
even homosexuality. Yacoubian Building, in its tale of a building in
disrepair and its denizens, does exactly what cinema, ideally, can:
It provides a window for us into previous worlds and lives we could
not possibly see otherwise (unless, of course, we read a book). From
the rooftops, where the former middle class came to live in what were
initially servants’ quarters, we see long pans of the Cairo skylines
that are quite breathtaking.

Too bad the film is mostly pretty miserable to watch. Though Yacoubian
Building is certainly useful as an academic exercise, with lots
to tell us about life in the Egyptian middle classes, as a film
it doesn’t function well at all. Its shooting style and script is
more like a soap opera, with negligible story arcs and melodramatic
developments about characters. For the first half of the film, we
meet the characters we’re supposed to care about as they quarrel
and bicker and shove each other around – when the action starts to
heat up, it’s in poorly constructed street sequences of political
upheaval scored with oppressive music that doesn’t really fit. If
this is a worthwhile film, it isn’t for its cinematic artistry so
much as surrounding factors that recommend it. Which is fine, but
it’s instructive to know the difference.