Swedish/Egyptian director Tarik Saleh is in competition in Cannes with “Boy From Heaven” his second film to delve into the underbelly of modern Egypt — and the Arab world at large — following his 2017 political thriller “The Nile Hilton Incident,” which depicted political power abuse and police corruption. “Nile Hilton” won the grand jury prize at Sundance and was banned in Egypt.
In Saleh’s new potentially explosive pic, the young protagonist Adam, who is the son of a small-town Egyptian fisherman, is offered the privilege of studying at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which is the epicenter of power of Sunni Islam. Shortly after his arrival in Cairo, the university’s highest-ranking religious leader, the Grand Imam, suddenly dies. This prompts Adam to become a pawn in a ruthless power struggle between Egypt’s religious and political elite.
Saleh spoke to Variety about how he navigated the thorny subject matter of his bold new political drama. Edited excerpts below.
What drew you to make a film that takes us inside the world’s main center for Islamic theology for the first time?
My grandfather went to Al-Azhar and I’ve always been fascinated by it. So after “Nile Hilton,” I was thinking about Al-Azhar, and about how little people know about Islam in a way that I think is interesting.
Well you do it in a way that is likely to be explosive
Of course, in the back of my head, when I was writing it, I was like: “Oh, can you really say this? Can you talk about this? Can you do this?” But I decided to put that question in a box and just say: “No, I’m going to go in.” So while I’m writing the script, it’s like I’m walking around with the camera, and following my characters with the camera, and I see what they’re up to, and sometimes they do what I want; sometimes not. It’s not up to me. And as the story unfolds, I was like: “Holy shit, I should probably not make this film.” Because it’s, like you say, it could ruffle feathers.
In a nutshell, why will it ruffle feathers?
I think that what’s more sensitive than the religious aspects of this film is how I deal with state security. Because the tension between state security and religious power [in Egypt] is enormous.
Is there any chance the film will play in Egypt?
I think they’ll have a few meetings before they decide. But listen, I don’t think it’s a controversial film. My whole family is Muslim. And I’m a half-Swedish, half-Egyptian. Here is the paradox. I love Egypt. It’s an unrequited love, of course. It doesn’t love me back. But I think that the point is that I don’t like how Islam is portrayed by people that know nothing about it. I don’t like it when people with bad intentions piss on Islam. I don’t think it’s respectful. I don’t think that’s how you treat other people. I don’t like it when Muslims treat minorities in Muslim countries badly. I think that sucks. I think that is not where I am coming from.
What did you do to make it theologically accurate?
I worked with imams, when it came to the script. I tried the script on imams and discussed the theological arguments in it to make sure, because it wasn’t my intention to provoke. I see myself as a filmmaker who just wants to tell stories truthfully, and I think that if the truth is going to be painful, which it will be for some people – but it’s more for political reasons than for religious reasons – then so be it.