Cannes Film Festival: "Boy from Heaven" poses questions about politics and religion in Egypt

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Swedish filmmaker Tarik Saleh has premiered his latest film "Boy from Heaven" at the 75th Cannes International Film Festival and now waits with bated breath to see if he might scoop the coveted Palme d'Or award.

In the movie, 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 epicentre 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.

"I'm like a messenger, you know, because I'm Swedish and I'm Egyptian and I am, my mother is Protestant, my father is Muslim. So I am a messenger. And I tell you, basically, human beings are aspiring to the same things all over the world. They want something better for their children," explains Salah.

"I think that the message is that, you asked me the last line in the film, 'what did you learn?' You learned something new. You didn't know this place existed. It's the most important place in Sunni Islam. You didn't know it existed before you saw this film. That's strange. Islam is in the news every day. Why didn't you know it exists?"

“Boy From Heaven” is Salah's 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.

"I think there will be two truths. You know, I think it will be an official truth, they can choose theirs if they pretend the film doesn't exist or they attack it as an attack on Egypt. But then there will be an unofficial truth," says Salah.

"With 'The Nile Hilton Incident,' my last film that was banned in Egypt, I received so many fan mails from Egyptian police officers that loved the film. You know, they loved the film because they're like 'wow, yeah, it's a cool movie about us, you know?' And they know it's true. You know, because corruption is everywhere. I mean, it's open in the streets. You see police officers taking money when, you know, you're, you know, everywhere."

Salah says his hopes of winning the Palme d'Or award. were delayed in coming as he was notified late in the day as to whether it would be in contention.

"We were told just the day before. So the day before the press conference. So all the French distributors talk to each other, you know, about who is in and who is out and da da da. So at seven, you know, I get a call from my French distributor who says 'it doesn't look good. 12 films confirmed. And no, sorry Tarik'," Saleh said.

Moments after his initial disappointment Saleh left his home and walked to a square nearby to talk on the phone with his father, but as they chatted Saleh received another phone call advising him the film had been selected for the prestigious award.

"My French distributor, called on the other line and I turned it over and he said 'we're in.' And I started screaming in the middle of the square. I was like 'yes, yes!' And you know, people started turning their heads, you know, and it's an Arabic guy screaming in a square," he revealed.

The reaction of the people in the square, potentially being afraid of a man with Egyptian heritage screaming loudly ties in with the content of his film and the portrayal of Muslims around the globe.

"Ultimately Islam has been depicted as a monster, as the bogeyman. And that's not innocent. You know, it's a way for, you know, your leader or the leader in Sweden to hide behind that there is a monster outside that is dangerous. So they don't have to answer for the cuts they've done in our welfare and our societies," the filmmaker said.

The Swedish filmmaker has directed feature films, music videos, documentaries and TV series including "Westworld" and "Ray Donovan." His 2017 crime drama "The Nile Hilton Incident" was nominated for a César award in France, and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival.

The 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival runs from 17-28 May 2022.

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