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Best-selling author of the book The Yacoubian Building Alaa El Aswany, also happens to be a practicing dentist who was trained in Chicago. (Victoria Hazou for The Globe and Mail)
Best-selling author of the book The Yacoubian Building Alaa El Aswany, also happens to be a practicing dentist who was trained in Chicago. (Victoria Hazou for The Globe and Mail)

Watch it/Watch out

Watch this Netflix pick of the week before it vanishes Add to ...

So Netflix went ahead and ate the movie I was originally going to make this week’s top pick. This is the fifth or sixth time I’ve added something to my to-watch list, only to find it gone at a later date.

Anyway, this week’s Netflix highlight was at least in part inspired by the years I spent growing up in the Middle East. As for this week’s lowlight, well, you’re in luck, because I’m about to introduce you to one of the greatest movie titles of all time.

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WATCH IT

The Yacoubian Building

One way or another, this was going to be a Semitic pick of the week. I had originally intended to choose a beautiful Israeli film called The Band’s Visit that ranks among my favourite movies of the last 10 years. It’s about an Egyptian police band that travels to Israel to perform at a cultural event, but takes a wrong turn and ends up in the one-horse-iest of one-horse towns. The movie is quiet and funny and human, coloured by a kind of deeply ingrained Middle Eastern sarcasm. When I found out Netflix carried it, I was thrilled.

Then I checked again this week, and what’d you know, it’s gone. There’s no explanation as to why Netflix wiped The Band’s Visit from its database, but apparently some of the content deals the company signs include expiry dates. As such, movies and TV shows actually disappear from Netflix at a pretty high rate. It can be really annoying.

So instead, I’m picking an Egyptian film called The Yacoubian Building – a sprawling three-hour opus that features pretty much every actor in the country and is about as morally subtle as a drop-kick from the Pope. This is a really important movie, but for those of you unfamiliar with Arabic cinema, brace for melodrama.

The Yacoubian Building is based on a 2002 novel of the same name that took Egypt by storm. It’s a story of myriad (fictional) characters living in an (existent) apartment building in downtown Cairo. Mostly, it’s a story about life in modern Egypt.

What makes The Yacoubian Building one of the most culturally significant Arabic films ever made is that it manages to touch on just about every taboo subject in the Arab world, from homosexuality to Islamic extremism to state-sanctioned torture (keep in mind, this movie was made before the revolution that brought down Egypt’s authoritarian government).

This was a big deal. In one scene, an Islamic activist is subjected to sexual humiliation by government agents, igniting his embrace of extremism. One of the movie’s subplots, involving the predatory exploits of a gay tenant, nearly got the whole project banned. Granted, the way the movie deals with homosexuality in particular is often demonizing and moralistic. But the fact that an Arab movie tackled such topics in the first place caused shockwaves.

At its best, The Yacoubian Building hones in on the kind of everyman frustration that was bubbling throughout vast swaths of Egyptian society just before the Arab Spring – the joblessness, the nepotism and the rampant corruption that stripped away any sense of hope among those on the wrong side of the country’s class divisions. This is the stuff that eventually led people to the streets.

At other times, The Yacoubian Building is just full-blown soap opera. About five minutes in, somebody turns the melodrama up to 11, and it stays there for the whole ride. People are constantly throwing glassware at each other or crying in the shower. Among the many plot devices you’ll encounter here are Wild West-style shootouts, a love scene featuring a radical Jihadist, one incredibly tacky flashback to an incident of child molestation and a trio of old ladies who perform forced midnight abortions.

If you can stand said melodrama, and the fact that the English subtitles often have a very hard time keeping up with colloquial Egyptian Arabic, you’ll find an important cultural statement on Egyptian society in the years leading up to the revolution. The Yacoubian Building is one of those movies that you never really expect to find on a streaming service such as Netflix, and yet there it is. Let’s hope it hasn’t also disappeared from the service by the time you read this review.

WATCH OUT

The Dead Undead

Look, I’m not going to lie to you: I didn’t see this movie. I’m not going to see this movie. You should probably not see this movie. In fact, this movie landed on my do-not-watch list purely on the strength of its title.

Just look at that title. Try to parse it, I dare you. It is the division-by-zero of movie titles.

Reader submissions:

None to speak of! Come on readers, you can do better than that. And FYI, we hear you and agree that Community is awesome. Fill up the comments below with some shows your fellow Netflix sufferers should watch/avoid.

Follow on Twitter: @omarelakkad

 
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