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New Egyptian film depicts intrigue, power plays at Al-Azhar

Egyptian-born director Tarek Saleh’s latest movie is his first to be shown at Cannes.
Director Tarik Saleh poses with the Best Screenplay Award for the movie "Walad Min Al Janna."

CAIRO — The film “Boy from Heaven” by Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh sparked controversy in Egyptian artistic and political circles after it was shown at the 75th Cannes Film Festival.

The film follows the story of young Adam (played by Palestinian actor Tawfeek Barhom), the son of a fisherman, who has been accepted at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, one of the world's top institutions for Sunni Islam scholars. On the first day of classes, the Grand Imam collapses and dies unexpectedly, leaving the university without a leader. Adam soon finds himself embroiled in a powerplay among Egypt's religious and political elite to elect a new imam.

The Cannes Film Festival’s official website said this film is Saleh’s first work to be featured at the renowned festival. The first few excerpts from his new film refer to an exciting story about power struggles in determining who will succeed the Grand Imam, according to the website. 

Saleh directed in 2017 “The Nile Hilton Incident,” whose events are set before the January 25 Revolution. It tackled the corruption of the Egyptian police during the Hosni Mubarak era. 

"Boy from Heaven" was filmed in Turkey since Saleh was forced to leave Egypt in 2015 while filming "The Nile Hilton Incident."

In 2005, Saleh won several awards in Europe and the United States for the documentary he produced about the notorious US prison at Guantanamo Bay, “Gitmo.”

Abdul-Jabbar al-Suhaili, a Yemeni actor who participated in "Boy from Heaven," told Al-Monitor that the movie was filmed in the summer of 2021 in Istanbul in a location that could pass as Cairo.

Suhaili plays Asfour, a student at Al-Azhar who is part of a group with a certain ideology. The group argues about whether to let Adam into their circle.

Suhaili, who resides in Sweden, said, “In the film, the viewer may find groups affiliated with well-known groups in the Egyptian street, such as the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as those in between who are the moderates who represent the majority of Egyptians.”

He added that each group believes it is the most capable of protecting and preserving Al-Azhar’s history and prestige in the world, and no other group deserves to lead the religious institution.

The film sparked controversy as soon as it was shown. Egyptian art critic Tarik el-Shennawi wrote in his May 22 article on Al-Masry Al-Youm that “the apparent goal [of the film] is to defend Al-Azhar's right to choose the venerable Grand Imam. But the scenes make it seem otherwise, as they depict how the Egyptian national security wants to impose a specific name on the sheikhdom to implement its instructions.”

Ahmed Barakat, head of Media Affairs at Al-Azhar, told Al-Monitor, “We tried to get a copy of the film to watch it in full and clarify our vision about it, but we have yet to receive it.”

Barakat added, “The film’s plot shows no negative impression or clear indications that allows us to express an opinion about it,” stressing that “Al-Azhar has no problem with any media product [on the institution] as long as it does not provide false information.”

The director of the Cairo Film Festival, Egyptian director Amir Ramses, told Al-Monitor that the film was not concerned with the Al-Azhar institution directly; rather, it resembles cinematic works based on a closed religious world, similar to the writings of American novelist Dan Brown.

Although Ramses did not like the technical level of the film, he said, “There was no misinterpretation of Al-Azhar.”

Responding to a question about whether the film was pure fiction or inspired by reality at a May 21 press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, Saleh said, “For me, it’s fiction, but like with all fiction, reality always seems to smash you in the face.” 

He added, “[Al-Azhar] is an institution that I’ve been interested in for a long time. When I wrote the script, there was no conflict between the [Egyptian] president and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. The conflict started when I had already written the script. So it has been very tense between Al-Azhar and [President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi.”

Saleh did not hide his admiration for the current Grand Imam. "The real Sheikh of Al-Azhar is a very intelligent man, very sophisticated — a voice of reason, I would say.”

He explained, “I mixed the history of Al-Azhar with what is happening today and created a parallel reality.”

Since Al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb took power in 2014, the relationship between Al-Azhar and the Egyptian presidency has gone through ups and downs. While Tayeb supported the overthrow of Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohammed Morsi following widespread protests against his rule in 2013, he later condemned the dispersal of the sit-in of Brotherhood supporters in Rabaa al-Adawiya.

In 2019, the Egyptian government tried to pass a constitutional amendment to tighten the executive authority's grip on Al-Azhar, but Tayeb insisted on preserving the independence of Al-Azhar and keeping it away from politics. However, the executive authority worked to limit the role of Al-Azhar in other ways, by strengthening parallel religious bodies, such as Dar Al-Ifta, as the president issued a law making it an independent body.

Meanwhile, Al-Azhar remains the highest Sunni authority in the world and is very popular among Muslims.

Speaking about the rumors of disagreement between Tayeb and Sisi, Barakat said, “There is no dispute between them. They have full respect for each other, and Tayeb has expressed his respect for Sisi on several occasions.”

However, he pointed out that there are some societal issues over which the two have different viewpoints. “This does not mean they are in conflict; this is democracy. The problem is that the West always portrays the difference in views in Middle Eastern countries as conflicts, while the same situation would be considered some sort of democracy in Western countries.”

For his part, Suhaili noted, “The film, of course, reflects the current reality, and no one can say that should the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar die, the political and religious elites in Egypt will try to impose a new sheikh they can control.”

"Boy from Heaven" received broad acclaim at Cannes and won the Best Screenplay in addition to the Francois Chalais Prize, which rewards life-affirming films and highlights journalists' presence at Cannes.

Speaking about the possibility of showing the film at the next edition of the Cairo Film Festival in November, Ramses said, “I do not think that 'Boy from Heaven' is on the shortlist of films that we want to show this year. There are other works from other countries that attracted us more.”

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