Al-Azhar, a Catholic monastery...and the Dalai Lama
At one of the premieres of "Boy from Heaven" (2022), Swedish-Egyptian director Tarek Saleh asks the audience whether anyone there speaks Arabic. Seeing raised hands in the audience, Saleh apologises that the actors in the film give a poor approximation of the Egyptian dialect.
Banned from working in Egypt since the release of his film "The Nile Hilton Incident" in 2015, Saleh faced real challenges in finding the right cast and the right filming locations. He sought help from actors from various Arab countries and others of Arab origin in the diaspora, some of whom were well-versed in the dialect, others less so. A few of them even had difficulty speaking Arabic.
The events in the film revolve around Adam, who comes from the town of Manzala. One of a long line of fishermen, he enrols in a religious studies programme at Al-Azhar. His arrival in Cairo coincides with the death of the Grand Imam, and a struggle ensues over the cleric’s succession within the corridors of the ancient spiritual institution. Yet, it isn’t just the dialect that falters. The cinematography, despite being the film's strongest element, remains wholly unconvincing.
Seeing the supposed courtyards of Al-Azhar and its porticoes, which form the backdrop of some breathtaking scenes, it is clear to the expert eye that the buildings have nothing to do with Fatimid architecture. Indeed, it soon becomes apparent that the small domes surrounding the courtyard of the vast mosque are Ottoman and belong to one of Istanbul's great mosques.
The West’s obsession with Islam and its ignorance
In a press release, the director says that the West is afraid of Islam, and yet it doesn’t know much about it. The statement implies that "Boy From Heaven" intends to make up for this ignorance. The fact that the film won a Palme d’Or at this year's Cannes Festival owes everything to this lack of knowledge.
Of course, the film’s producers may be excused over issues of dialect and filming locations. Even if there is a multitude of technical solutions available to overcome these kinds of production challenges, cost factors alone may have been decisive. What is difficult to fathom, however, are the dozens of other confused details; rather than ignorance, they reflect laziness to the point of carelessness.
Why aren’t the Egyptian policemen and soldiers in the film wearing the right uniforms? And why are the turbans of the Azhari men, which are normally short (out of modesty), longer and taller (as in the Ottoman tradition)? And how can their beards, which are supposed to be trimmed, according to Azhari tradition, hang down to the middle of their chests?
How on earth could a panoramic shot from above, of crowds praying in distinctive Malay garb and with Southeast Asian facial features, pass for prayer scenes in Cairo?
Deconstructing Orientalism more Orientalist than Orientalism
Tarek Saleh's film is a hard one to classify. Unlike older "Orientalist" films, especially of the Hollywood type, "Boy from Heaven" does suggest a degree of local authenticity by virtue of the Egyptian origins of its director, the nationalities of the cast and the choice of language.
Arabic is no longer unspoken, it is the film's only vernacular from beginning to end. What’s more, the plot lines do not deal with Islam as a problem. Instead political power is portrayed as the factor responsible for corrupting religion and its institutions.
The film depicts a dramatic, historical and prolonged battle between the political authorities and Al-Azhar, which revolves around the religious institution’s independence. Whilst that perception is misleading, it serves a well-intentioned "anti-Orientalist" purpose, with allusions to Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s oppressive regime.
Indeed, some of the characters’ motivations are to be found in the politics of today. This notwithstanding, deconstructing Orientalism should not be more Orientalist than the subject being deconstructed. Otherwise, it will come across as Orientalism twice-over, or an Orientalist depiction of Orientalism?!
In a revealing interview, the director says the idea for his work came to him while he was re-reading the novel "The Name of the Rose" by the Italian author Umberto Eco. He asked himself: "What if a story of this kind was told in an Islamic context?" This link is clear from the very first scenes, especially when security men in civilian clothes kill an Azhari student with a sword in the courtyard of the mosque.
The enveloping darkness of the night, the narrow corridors where the murder took place and the furtive camera angles are reminiscent of Eco’s medieval tale. Saleh twists the events to fit the template of the Catholic monastery in the novel. Or maybe he just concocts the European medieval drama within an “Islamic context”. This happens to fit nicely with the Orientalist imagination, in which the contemporary East is seen as an outdated image of a backward West.
For all that, the film does give an exceptional visual experience. Dazzling scenes capture the points at which motifs of Islamic architecture intersect with the movement of crowds of turbanned students, almost all of them dressed in uniform. The images expose the way in which the authorities control people and regulate their bodies in the most implicit and aesthetic way.
As for the procession of events and the varying rhythms employed to create suspense, it is tight until the last quarter of the film, when the plot sags a little towards the end. Palestinian Tawfeek Barhoum plays the title role of Adam with remarkable expertise. He focuses on details of body language, with a fragility in his voice to show how power corrupts individuals. In this way, the individual becomes an instrument in a system of slander and betrayal that repeatedly consumes itself.
"Boy from Heaven" is a classic crossover film in which cultural elements are mixed together in a haphazard and random fashion. The director draws on various formulaic and cliche-ridden templates dominant in global mass culture. Although well-executed, the confrontations between Azhari students in the university canteen are straight out of American “prison” films.
The scene in which the Grand Imam is elected, with the voting papers placed in an earthenware pot, brings to mind the Vatican rituals in the movie "The Two Popes" by Fernando Meirelles.
There are many moments when the student groups moving around the courtyards of the Great Mosque are redolent of scenes in Martin Scorsese's film "Kundun" about the Dalai Lama (the supreme religious leader of Buddhists in Tibet). And the filmmakers do not disappoint on this point. In one of those wide-angled, bird’s eye shots of a throng of Azhari students, the accompanying soundtrack is a segment of the distinctive overtone throat-singing of Buddhist monks!
© Qantara.de 2022
Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton