“A boy from heaven”…the Egyptian political police in the corridors of Al-Azhar University

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The Swedish-Egyptian director Tarek Saleh, in his film “A Boy from Heaven”, participating in the official competition of the Cannes Festival, tries to infiltrate the corridors of Al-Azhar University, or rather to monitor the movements of the political police in this scientific and religious space, and presents the viewer with his vision of the way in which power is placed. This institution is under her watch.

Once again, the Swedish director of Egyptian descent puts Tariq Saleh Part of the Egyptian political system under the microscope of its cameras, in a show work at Cannes It did not go unnoticed. Criticisms, especially in the Egyptian press, began to reproach him for his cinematic style adopted in the formulation of this work.

With this new film, the 50-year-old director dedicates his inclination to address the developments taking place in his country of origin, and his adherence to the political film as an artistic template, in which he expresses in his own way his positions on what is going on in one of the largest Arab countries, whose political arena remains, as is the case with most Arab countries of great complexity.

In this work, he tries to dismantle from the inside, in a simple cinematic style, the hidden influence of the authority on Al-Azhar University and work to be constantly under its control, because it is an issue related to “national security”, according to one of the film’s heroes. And it cannot allow the appointment of people at its head except by its recommendation, people it trusts and who do not pose any threat to its interests, whether inside or outside the university.

Boy from Heaven at Cannes © Mehdi Chebil

Scholarship to continue education at Al-Azhar University

The film is the story of young Raed, played by Palestinian actor Tawfiq Barhoum, who lives in a small village alongside his two brothers and his father, a fisherman. One day, he will receive a scholarship to continue his education at Al-Azhar University, with the recommendation of the imam of the village mosque. Of course, it was an unusual event for this young man, who sees the Islamic University as a source of forensic knowledge and a source for developing his religious knowledge. It will also be an opportunity for him to discover Cairo and its worlds.

As soon as he is a new guest at this prestigious university, which has a special place in Egyptian and Arab Sunni Islam, and also in security at the internal level of the country, he will be the focus of attempts to attract political currents active in this institution, and by the intelligence service also to recruit him as an agent in their favour. And his weak personality will not help him to remain steadfast for long and independent of the two parties so as not to fall under the influence of either of them.

His arrival at the university and the discovery of the worlds of Cairo coincided with the death of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, which will increase the rush to his services, especially from the “State Security Investigations”, a kind of political police, which needed to mobilize its agents within this institution to find a successor to the deceased Sheikh, loyal to it and away On the political currents opposing it.

During the search to reach the perpetrator of a murder in which a student was killed by the authority at the university, a security officer will take advantage of the opportunity to lure Raed and pressure him day after day until he falls in his net, to turn into an informant, transmitting to him all the information he requests, promising him that he will remain under his protection, because the authority does not Abandon those who “collaborate with her”.

But the course of the film will show the opposite. It reveals with successive scenes that the authority eats its informants. And the agent she was leading the investigation into his murder, she killed him, and Raed can no longer look back in his relationship with her. Any step back, he became threatened with paying a heavy price, and he only has to carry out the orders of the secret police, especially since he was under the threat of being accused of killing the student agent.

The authority will achieve its goal and install the personality of its choice at the head of Al-Azhar. Raed will return from where he came empty-handed. As the viewer emerges from the hall stunned between all these interconnections between religion and authority, and its hidden and powerful presence in the corridors of a religious institution. Is it the whole truth, or did the director exaggerate and exaggerate it? Two examples of questions a viewer might ask as he leaves the theater.

Cannes 2022
Cannes 2022 © Graphic Studio France Media Monde

“Political naivety and intellectual adolescence”

As expected, a number of critics attacked the film, and underestimated its artistic value, and there are those who considered that the cinematic style adopted in it was outdated, used in the fifties and even the forties, especially in the part related to the role of an intelligence man who recruits agents, whose role is to convey what is going on at Al-Azhar University.

At the level of form, Tarek El-Shennawy wrote “In Al-Masry Al-Youm” that “the dialect was not 100 percent Egyptian” and that it was Levantine, and the Egyptian viewer was required to use the English translation of the film on the screen several times to understand the dialogue.

On the content level, the Egyptian critic was more severe in his criticism of the film’s content, considering it a “hypothetical drama that does not express the truth”, summarizing his view of a “boy from heaven” by saying that it is “political naivety and an intellectual adolescence.”

Similar to the “Nile Hilton Incident” that was filmed in Morocco, “Boy from Heaven” was not filmed in Egypt, but rather in Turkey. In 2005, Tariq Saleh won several awards in Europe and the United States for the documentary he produced about the Guantanamo military prison.

In a statement to Agence France-Presse, the director said, “I have not returned to Egypt since filming The Nile Hilton incident in 2015, when the Egyptian security services ordered us to leave Egypt. Since then, I have become persona non grata who will inevitably be arrested if he sets foot on Egyptian soil.”

He stressed that his tape is a “love letter” to Egypt and a tribute to his ancestors. He added, with a flood of feelings, “I love the Egyptians and their language… It’s like music to me when I hear it, even though my level of Arabic is disastrous!”

“A strong and beautiful movie”

The film left a special impression on the audience in Cannes, which amounted to astonishment, because it is a “strong and beautiful work that cannot but move us”, says French Christelle, who added, “I am amazed at what I saw. It is a political work, revealing what is hidden in a certain system.” I will not hide from you that “I did not regret watching it and dedicating part of my time to it. This mixture of politics and religion is not found in many films. It is a scathing criticism of the politics of a country. It shows a corrupt system.”

Religion and power through its political police, three elements that the director “greatly succeeds” in assembling them into a cinematic work, according to Pedro. This Brazilian, who presents himself as a religious person, adds that “the film is important. It shows us another culture, with a lot of criticism and a lot of realism. The director in general succeeded in presenting his point of view.”

To simplify his idea further, Pedro continues: “I find this combination of religion and politics important as well. It is impossible that politics and religion do not intersect, I think that everyone is religious in one way or another, even those who do not believe in the existence of God. Therefore, it is necessary to address the issue of religion cinematically, but only from It must be done in a calm manner, and the directors have a kind of boldness and courage to go into the subject matter, regardless of the type of religion.”

Boualem Ghobachi, delegate of France 24 to Cannes