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DUBAI: As Egyptian-Swedish filmmaker Tarik Saleh sat in the audience at the 2022 Cannes premiere of his latest film, ‘Boy from Heaven’, he found himself unable to focus on his own accomplishment. Even as his hero, legendary Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras, turned from the seat in front of him to offer a nod of approval, even as more than 2,000 delighted guests sat on the edges of their seats behind him, everything Saleh could think was, “I wish someone else had done it.”
“If someone else was making these movies, I wouldn’t be making them. I was just watching them,” Saleh told Arab News, speaking on the sidelines of the festival. “The problem is that no one will make them unless I make them. I guess some things I just have to do myself.
One can understand why others may have been hesitant to make a film like “Boy from Heaven,” which received both Best Screenplay and the coveted François Chalais award at Cannes. After all, a thriller about the inner workings of the highly influential Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo following the death of the Grand Imam and a corrupt political effort to replace him was always bound to be controversial.
“The funny thing is, I don’t intend to provoke anyone – not that there’s anything wrong with a little provocation. I just want to tell a good story and make a good movie,” Saleh said.
The idea came to Saleh while re-reading one of his favorite books, Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’, a murder mystery set in an Italian monastery in the 14th century. It occurred to him what a similar scandal unfolding in al-Azhar might look like, before he quickly dismissed the idea as impossible in the current political climate.
“I started thinking, ‘Are you allowed to tell this story? How will people react? I immediately started censoring myself – which made me realize that’s exactly why I have to say it. I realized that if I told this story without holding back, I would go into territory that no one has ever been. That in itself is controversial,” Saleh says.
Saleh was born in Stockholm in 1972 to an Egyptian father and a Swedish mother, and long before he had even visited the country, he instinctively replied that he was Egyptian first. This is because growing up, none of his fellow Swedes would accept him as one of their own.
“Every day here in Sweden I was asked, ‘Where are you from?’ If I answered “Sweden”, they wouldn’t accept that. After a while, I just gave up. I said, ‘I’m from Egypt,’” Saleh says.
Even though he disliked being othered, Egypt still held a dear place in his heart. And still does.
“My father, instead of telling me fairy tales and bedtime stories, told me stories of his childhood in Egypt. From there, it became almost an obsession for me,” says Saleh.
Throughout his life, Saleh also had to endure cultural hatred towards Muslims and the Arab world, in which bigotry was often misrepresented as fact. He even found a book in his library at school called “Arab”, a pseudo-scientific study that described “Arab” as stupid and uncivilized.
“I grew up constantly having to defend ourselves, to defend Arab humanity,” Saleh said. “When I started writing my own screenplays, starting with ‘The Nile Hilton Incident’ (2017), I gave myself permission to have the audacity to ignore the fact that the western world had been washed brain to think that people in the Arab world aren’t human, so I decided to tell a human story, with the good and the bad, and not try to convince anyone of anything. it would be.
Saleh was inspired by the films of Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Iñárritu from Mexico, and Bong Joon Ho and Park Chan Wook from South Korea, who each made films of overflowing humanity that transcended cultural boundaries. He decided that he, too, could make a film like Joon Ho’s remarkable “Memories of a Murder” (2003), a film that criticized his society, offered no context or explanation, but was never seen as the bet. in accusation of a whole people.
“To all the reviewers of ‘Boy from Heaven’ who say I don’t provide enough context, I say no, sorry, I don’t owe you an explanation,” Saleh said. “I am not here to teach you Islam. Bong Joon Ho does not explain Korean society. He is not a teacher. He’s a filmmaker. Many Westerners think they have a right to know. I say no, you have the right to learn. You’re going to have to make this trip yourself.
It is partly for this reason that Saleh chose the main character of “Boy from Heaven” himself to be alienating to Western audiences, subverting Hollywood’s expectation that the alien character would represent the point of view of a skeptical western viewer.
“I knew it would be unsettling to go on this trip with someone who is a believer, who is trying to do the right thing. And I’m so glad I made it unsettling,” the filmmaker said.
While ‘Boy from Heaven’ is – above all – an unwavering work that takes a critical look at how politics can affect things that are supposed to be immune to its operation, Saleh wanted above all to be respectful of the faith. . and accurate in his portrayals of the university – which his own grandfather attended – and the mosque and perhaps forging a deeper connection to them himself.
“I worked with an imam who knew Al-Azhar very well. I wanted to make sure the description was correct and – for selfish reasons – I wanted to have conversations with him about life, moral issues, my own doubts and problems. It was very fruitful,” Saleh said. “We had many interesting conversations about the dilemmas of film. I realized that I was kind of telling myself the story, in many ways.
For Saleh, the film’s story speaks for itself as much as anyone else. Good storytelling, after all, brings the viewer into the minds of its characters, preferably in a way that makes them realize a deeper truth, both about themselves and the world around them.
“That’s the transcendent thing about the movie – when you watch it, you make the decisions that the character makes,” Saleh said. “What is even more spectacular is that the more corrupt decisions they make, the more we as human beings can understand.
“Our leaders are trying to tell us that the enemy is across the ocean, or across a border. But the truth is our enemy is in the mirror,” he continued. “Human beings, if we are honest with ourselves, know that we are against ourselves. This is the basis of theater and the basis of life.