Reporting from Cairo — Take a glimpse across Egypt's sexual landscape and you'll see the devil's ploys, unrequited passions, mundane marital rhythms, tempestuous affairs, the threat of God, the shame of society and, in one wrenching scene, a village girl circumcised by a man wielding a knife.
Sex in most cultures is balanced between sanctity and sin, that precarious, often titillating, terrain veering from the virtue of the family to a bondage fetish captured on a cellphone and dispersed across the Internet. We become the hidden strands of our desires. Sexual tastes around the world navigate religion, rigid gender roles, centuries of tradition and fears over the allure of Western permissiveness. But in Islamic countries, such as Egypt, these lines are more constrictive and firmly drawn.
"Sex Talk," a new documentary by director Amr Bayoumi, is an earnest peek into the Egyptian bedroom. Not perhaps entirely candid, the film shadows the faces of its subjects, including university students, an accountant and a cafeteria worker, to protect their identities. Chatting about orgies, masturbation, unresponsive spouses and first sexual encounters is not done with the unabashed confessional fervor peddled on American reality TV shows.
"Sex is talked about more and more, but the discussion remains under the ceiling of religious and social codes," said Bayoumi, whose 2007 feature film, "Girls," followed the travails of provincial coeds enrolled in a Cairo university. "You can't speak against these. There are taboos."
A slight man with a cigarette voice, Bayoumi, 49, who has directed 10 documentaries, said: "I started out to make a small film of three or four women discussing orgasms. It was too narrow a focus. I wanted something larger. I went to the social studies center and found books on rape and sexual abuse but nothing just on normal sex. So I decided to film ordinary people talking about their sex lives."
The movie was shown at the 2009 Dubai International Film Festival but has yet to find a distributor in Egypt. It has had several private screenings in Cairo. In a review, the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm said the film was technically flawed but that Bayoumi had the courage to expose the "vagueness, denial and outright shame Egyptians so closely associate with sex, be it pre- or post-marital, as well as the rampant double standards that have come to define men and oppress women."
"Sex Talk" finds that restrictions lead to contradictions, sexist impulses and odd euphemisms, such as the boy who, when his parents closed the bedroom door, was told, "Dad's putting eye drops in mom's eyes." The documentary seems to wince and wonder as it watches a young man explain why he can't marry the girlfriend with whom he's been having sex because she's not a virgin, and a twentysomething woman contemplating the intimacy of making love: "I have what's called amongst Eastern girls the virginity complex," she says. "I think I'm like that. I never see [sex] as spontaneous. . . I call myself liberated, a feminist defending women's freedoms, but to me [sex] is still mixed with fear and terror."
She and the other hidden faces in the film want to strip away inhibitions against the confines of family and culture. Their tales carry the idiosyncrasies of Middle Eastern society but also speak to universal themes of sexual joy and frustration that could be found in a bungalow in Los Angeles or a hut on the Serengeti: The wife repelled by her husband's touch but who is "acrobatic" with her lover; the husband who disappears in the afternoon with his mistress so he can endure his marriage.
But "Sex Talk" is a deeper comment on globalization's kinetic reach into conservative cultures and how Western-framed ideas of sexuality, which Christian preachers fought decades ago with the rise of round-the-clock media, are challenging the religious authority of imams and enraging Islamic fundamentalists. How do words in a sacred book compete with imported, hard-core images that can be accessed in nanoseconds?
"The picture is growing into the blueprint for the reality," said Adel Elseewy, an artist and one in a mosaic of experts scattered throughout the film to offer insight to the musings of the shadowed faces. "We need to reevaluate, especially in these current times when we don't produce this type of picture, yet we've fallen under its influence."