Boy from Heaven: Tarik Saleh’s thriller set in Egypt Al-Azhar | Art and Culture News

Cannes, France – Tarik Saleh, the Swedish-Egyptian director whose new film Boy from Heaven premiered in the competition section of the Cannes Film Festival this week, makes light of being called bold and courageous for his work.

“I know the Egyptians and the Saudis who go out and tell the truth. [They] go to jail, torture, get out and tell the truth again. Those are brave people, ”he told Al Jazeera.

“I have a Swedish passport. I live in Europe. I filmed the movie [that is set in Cairo] in Istanbul, ”he says.

However, Boy from Heaven is set to swell feathers with his portrayal of corruption, hypocrisy, and power rivalries within the religious establishment of Egypt and the state.

The film is a thriller about Adam (played by Tawfeek Barhom), a young man from a fishing community in northern Egypt who receives a scholarship to study Islamic thought at Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar University only to become involved in a plot to choose the next one. grand imam. It is a story of espionage and scandal, informants and attackers, intrigues and killings.

Film critic Peter Bradshaw praised the “intersection between conspiracy thriller and more general human drama” in the film.

“A boy from Heaven reminded me a little bit of the English author John Le Carré, who of course writes about espionage and the human cost of that work,” he told Al Jazeera. “[Saleh] it also bravely challenges the corruption of church and state, ”says Bradshaw.

Saleh’s latest outing, The Nine Hilton Event, won the Grand Jury Prize World Cinema: Drama at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival but was banned in Egypt for its portrayal of corruption in the country’s police force.

Saleh thinks it’s his job to make movies without thinking about the possible aftermath.

“I believe that as an artist, you have to tell the truth; the emotional truth because there is no objective truth. If you’re specific, and you’re trying to be honest, and you’re not guessing, there’s a chance to really say something [of significance] through cinema, ”he says.

Director Tarik Saleh poses at the Cannes Film Festival
Tarik Saleh poses at the 75th Cannes Film Festival [Eric Gaillard/Reuters]

The script of the film in one of the most famous schools for Sunni Muslims makes it very unusual.

“How many would know about Al-Azhar and the Grand Imam before they saw the film?” Saleh asks.

Boy from Heaven tries to present a round view of the religious world, warts and all – the factionalism within the faith in Al-Azhar, the divisions between liberals and conservatives – but it is not an attack on the Islamic faith itself.

Saleh believes that the most controversial aspects will be in its portrayal of the interference of state security in the religious establishment, and the abuse of power – whether by an individual or an institution.

“Power is a double-edged sword. It can easily cut your own hand, ”says the main protagonist, Adam, in the film.

Saleh believes he has a responsibility to tell these kinds of stories.

“Egyptians living in Egypt cannot tell the story. It is impossible to do that. Egypt is a military dictatorship. ”

‘I’m someone else I don’t like to be’

Raised in Stockholm by a Swedish mother and an Egyptian father, Saleh, 50, calls himself a “daily Muslim.”

“I don’t fast as much as I should, I don’t pray as much, I drink alcohol from time to time. I know five verses you need to know to be able to pray, but I don’t know the whole Qur’an by heart, as my grandparents did, ”he says.

His grandfather also studied at Al-Azhar – which sparked Saleh’s curiosity and desire to make a film about the university.

Saleh worked closely with an imam while writing the screenplay for the film because he wanted it to be theologically correct, and he was aware of the ubiquity of Islamophobia in popular culture. “We had incredible discussions. I enjoyed asking him all the forbidden questions and he had these nice explanations,” he says.

Saleh is keen to emphasize that Boy from Heaven is fictional. The only real figure in the film is President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, but even he is present only as a photograph on the wall. Al-Azhar’s true grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb, is someone Saleh described in a press conference as “a sophisticated voice of reason in a region full of crazy voices and megalomaniac leaders.”

Al-Azhar itself is a modern educational institution that also teaches subjects such as medicine and computer science and has female students.

“What I’ve done is married history with how things today are to create a parallel reality,” he says.

Saleh thinks that people should constantly ask themselves the question that forms the last line of his film: “What did you learn?” It is the line that prompted Barhom to take the lead.

“It’s a journey. It’s about growing up in these places that may rob you of some youth, but you get to be the best version of yourself, to deal with everything that life throws at you, ”Barhom said in a press conference.

Boy from Heaven
The last line of the film – ‘What did you learn?’ Urged Barhom to take the lead [Still from Boy from Heaven/Atmo]

Ultimately, Saleh believes the film has a universal resonance, as it is about people struggling with the conflict between what they believe in and what they need to do.

He said that conflict applies to his own work, and describes himself as a reluctant director who makes films because others cannot and because he does not trust other directors with his writing, as well as for more prosaic reasons.

“I am the father of two children. I have to put food on the table. And as a director, I’m well paid because people think I’m good at it, ”he laughs.

He said he finds being on the acting tortoise process; he loves being with the cast and crew, but hates commanding them.

“I’m someone else I don’t like to be,” he says. “I have to be like a general who sacrifices people and it’s very severe. It’s brutal. I feel like I’m a guy who just sends people to die, ”he says.

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