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Political thriller from real-life Egypt

Boy from heaven
Regissør: Tarik Saleh
(Finland, Frankrike, Sverige)

ARAB FILM DAYS / "Boy from Heaven" is first and foremost a well-composed suspense film, but at the same time gives an exciting insight into religious environments and political lines of conflict in today's Egypt.


In the main competition during last year's film festival in Cannes, two Nordic films took part, both of which are fairly pure genre films, but which nevertheless touch on highly topical issues in society. The films also have in common that the action is set in completely different countries than the Nordic ones.

One of them was Ali Abbasis holy spider, which had its Norwegian cinema premiere at the end of November. Although set in Iran, this serial killer film has clear similarities to the "Nordic noir" genre, while also using the crime format to cast a critical eye on Iranian society and its view of women. holy spider was felt to be even more relevant with the extensive protests against the country's governing powers that arose a few months after the film had its world premiere in Cannes.

The other was Boy from Heaven, which also goes under the international title Cairo Conspiracy, directed by Swedish-Egyptian Tarik Saleh. The film is a conspiracy thriller, which is a type of film that is no stranger to political content – with the American seventies classics Three days for Condor, Marathon man og The eavesdropping as genre-defining examples. Nevertheless, it is rare to see a conspiracy thriller that takes place in an Islamic university environment, even a highly existing one.

Al-Azhar University

Boy from heaven is about the young fisherman's son Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), who gets the exclusive opportunity to study at perhaps the world's most important Sunni Muslim institution, Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Here he is first surprised that the students do not necessarily follow all teachings strictly, for example when it comes to visiting the city's nightclubs. Soon, however, he witnesses a far more serious crime, when one of his new study mates is killed.

«Boy from heaven directs a timely spotlight on existing power structures."

It turns out that the student was an informant for the Egyptian intelligence service, which wants eyes and ears on the inside of the politically important religious institution. With the imminent danger of suffering the same fate, Adam is recruited by intelligence officer Ibrahim (Fares Fares) to take over his late comrade's secret agent role. More specifically, Adam is tasked with gaining a foothold in the university's closed, extremist circles.

The film builds up in a fairly classic way, with an initially naïve and innocent main character who is manipulated into increasingly far-reaching intrigues and gradually takes a more active role in the course of events. Central to the action is a larger political game, where the authorities and various factions at the university have conflicting interests linked to the election of a new grand imam for Al-Azhar after the incumbent suddenly suffers a heart attack. Adam, for his part, has to make several drastic decisions in order not to be revealed by the group he is infiltrating, while they are not the only party willing to go over corpses. This is a paranoia thriller in which none of the characters are necessarily to be trusted, in line with the fact that deeper agendas are eventually uncovered.

Religious institutions and the intelligence service

Boy from heaven is Saleh's second film with added action Egypt. The first was The Nile Hilton Incident (2017), which in some markets received the title Cairo Confidential. This film was also a political thriller and depicted, among other things, corruption in the Egyptian police, with real events leading up to the revolution in 2011 as a backdrop. The Nile Hilton Incident sometimes provoked strong reactions and was banned in Egypt. After that, Saleh has been unwanted in Egypt – and consequently had to play Boy from heaven in Turkey instead.

It is difficult to assess how close to reality his new film is. Boy from heaven portrays strong tensions between religious institutions and the security authorities in Egypt, which, according to Saleh, are very real. The film is probably as critical of the intelligence service's methods as it is of the educational organisation, without necessarily conveying any clear political message. The filmmaker, who comes from a Muslim family and has a grandfather who was a student at Al-Azhar University, is also not concerned with criticizing the religion per se. In working on the film's script, he has consulted with imams to reproduce it theologyteach as truthfully as possible.

It is not least interesting to get an insight into Al-Azhar University, which many of us are not familiar with. This institution occasionally appears in the news media, most recently in connection with its leaders calling for a global boycott of Swedish goods after right-wing radical Rasmus Paludan burned a Koran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm.

"It is not least interesting to get an insight into Al-Azhar University, which many of us are not familiar with."

Rather than using the genre format to say something about societal conditions, Saleh primarily uses existing institutions and lines of conflict as the setting for a thriller. Saleh has also mentioned Umberto Ecos The name of the rose as a source of inspiration, in addition to John le Carré's spy novels. And Boy from heaven is definitely an intense and well-composed thriller, which even won the award for best screenplay at the festival in Cannes.

Nevertheless, it is both brave and commendable to allow an audience-friendly genre film to take place in such a specific and unfamiliar arena as this university. With that dishes Boy from heaven a timely spotlight – and inevitably some criticism – of existing power structures. At the same time as it is exciting.

Boy from heaven is opening film on Arab movie days, which is organized in the period 15-19 March at Vika cinema in Oslo. The film has ordinary Norwegian
cinema premiere March 31.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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