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In “Boy From Heaven,” Adam, the protagonist, is the lens through which the viewer sees a struggle playing out between religion and state.
Since Egypt first started producing films in 1930, it has been the cinema epicenter of the Arab world. The country’s golden age was the 1950s, where it was producing upward of 50 films a year and at times labeled the ‘Arab Hollywood’. In 2022, however, one of Egypt’s most acclaimed directors filmed the majority of his latest release in Istanbul.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi isn’t mentioned by name in the Egyptian-Swedish director Tarik Saleh’s latest film Boy From Heaven. But the recurring use of his portrait, watching over every government room or street coffee stand, makes him a central character. Sisi’s iron fist shapes the entire story, as the other characters – including the protagonist Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) – navigate the narrow margins his oppressive rule awards them.
Adam comes from a humble family of fishermen in Manzala, north Egypt. But after gaining acceptance into Al-Azhar University in Cairo, he leaves behind his widower father and two younger brothers. As soon as he arrives however, the earth shifts below the world’s most prestigious Sunni Islamic educational institution as the Grand Imam dies. Immediately, the state’s internal security force meets to inform their agents on the state’s preferred successor and to hatch a plan to bring him to power. Along the way, Adam’s piousness and relative innocence will be put to the test.
Adam meets and befriends Zizo (Mehdi Dehbi). But what Adam doesn’t know is that Zizo is actually a state security plant who reports to Colonel Ibrahim played by the Swedish-Lebanese actor Fares Fares. Colonel Ibrahim has to navigate internal politics as his younger, more cutthroat superior Sobhy (Mo Ayoub) tries to climb the ranks of internal security, all while trying to accomplish his mission of installing the Grand Imam that the state’s apparatus desires.
Fares also starred in The Nile Hilton Incident (2017), Saleh’s film set in the early days of the Egyptian revolution, where he played a policeman who initially partakes in the commonplace petty corruption of his colleagues before meeting his moral limits when told to let go of a murder investigation that implicates influential people.
While individually, each film is a singular opus, the films could also be taken in tandem. Both films are structured as traditional thrillers. But Saleh subverts the traditional plot where individual acts of heroism save the day by showing how corrupt systems, carefully constructed and consolidated, are often impervious to the pure intents of an individual. Instead, the system’s politics swallow them whole.
In a sense, Fares’ character from Boy From Heaven could be seen as the continuation of his character in The Nile Hilton Incident – a few years older and greyer, world weary having navigated the politics of internal security and lived through the an exasperating decade since Egyptians rose up to overthrow the Mubarak regime.
In “Boy From Heaven,” Adam is the lens through which the viewer sees a struggle playing out between religion and state. Adam unwillingly works for the state, battling his piety with a sense of obligation toward his father and family.
Meanwhile, Colonel Ibrahim tries to balance protecting Adam from Al-Azhar students sympathetic to more radical readings of Islam as well as the ruthlessness of his colleagues, including his direct superior, while also using any underhanded trick necessary to achieve his mission of installing the state’s pick for imam.
As the story unfolds, Adam learns that the purity with which he views religion is not always reflected in institutions that are rife with internal power plays and self-serving players. It also becomes apparent that in an autocratic police state, like Egypt under the all-seeing portrait of Sisi, no institution – even God’s – is left unspoiled.
In such environments, following one’s moral compass may bring more damage than compromising on values, as Adam experiences with Ibrahim, the various candidates to be the next Grand Imam, and his groups of peers at Al-Azhar.
While the critical reception of The Nile Hilton Incident was overwhelmingly positive when it came out in 2017, one critic did not appreciate how the country’s security forces were portrayed: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Since then, Saleh’s been a persona non grata in Egypt, meaning “Boy From Heaven” was mostly shot at the Süleymaniye mosque in Istanbul. Saleh, 50, was born to a Swedish mother and an Egyptian father. His desire to make a film about Al-Azhar emerged from the knowledge that his father’s father attended Al-Azhar. Saleh describes himself as “an everyday Muslim,” according to Al Jazeera English.
“I don’t fast as much as I should, I don’t pray as much, I drink alcohol every now and then. I know five verses that you need to know to be able to pray but I don’t know the whole Quran by heart like my grandfather and grandmother did,” he told AJE.
To write the film, Saleh worked closely with an imam in order to maintain theological accuracy but also to avoid Islamophobic tropes. “Boy From Heaven” intricately navigates the politics within religious institutions while also highlighting the human fallibility – including the many hypocrisies – of its subjects. It also, like his last film, shows how challenging an autocratic state can enact a serious toll on individuals. But Saleh maintains his stories are fictional and refutes depictions of himself as brave.
“I know Egyptians and Saudis who go out and say the truth. [They] go to jail, get tortured, get out and tell the truth again. Those are brave people,” he told AJE. “I have a Swedish passport. I live in Europe.”