While the final five in the international category at the Oscars ended up being mostly Eurocentric, the shortlist was one of the most diverse. Especially notable are the number of edgy stories set in different Muslim societies.
They come not only from the Arab world such as Morocco’s submission “The Blue Caftan,” helmed by Maryam Touzani (“Adam”), but also Denmark with “The Holy Spider” from helmer Ali Abbasi (“Border”) and Sweden with “The Cairo Conspiracy” (ne “The Boy From Heaven”) directed by Tarik Saleh. There’s also Saim Sadiq’s debut feature, “Joyland,” from Pakistan, but it is a Pakistan-India-U.S. production.
For the past several decades, filmmaking in the Nordic countries has been enriched by first- and second-generation or emigré talents with a hyphenated identity. For example, Stockholm-born director-writer Saleh’s father is Egyptian and his mother is Swedish. He draws on that heritage, in particular that of his paternal grandfather, for the political thriller “The Cairo Conspiracy,” his fifth theatrical feature and winner of the screenplay award at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
The Sweden-France-Finland production is about a gifted student who becomes a pawn in the ruthless power struggle between Egypt’s religious and political elite. “The film is about the past and the future colliding, and the people that get crushed in between,” Saleh says. The story unfolds in the closed world of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the epicenter of power of Sunni Islam, and an establishment that his grandfather attended, as the Egyptian security service plots to influence the election of the next grand imam.
Although the film convincingly captures the look and atmosphere of bustling, noisy Cairo and the rarified, cloistered environs of the university, the production was not able to shoot in Egypt. In point of fact, Saleh has been on an Egyptian security service list of “undesirables” since just before his previous feature, “The Nile Hilton Incident,” went into production. Ultimately, “The Cairo Conspiracy” filmed in Turkey, where the production was able to use Istanbul’s Süleymaniye Mosque as a stand-in for Al-Azhar.
Saleh acknowledges that as a Swede, he has more power than Egyptian filmmakers to portray aspects of his father’s complex country, which, like other countries, is unable to be reduced to one truth.
For the Cannes press, he was quick to stress, “My film is not a criticism of Islam. It is not about exposing some dark side of the religion but rather about understanding the power of knowledge either as a liberating or an imprisoning force.”
Saleh notes that he understands perfectly well why Muslims are suspicious of how their religion is represented in the West.
“I myself grew up surrounded by malicious prejudices and attempts to portray us as monsters,” he says. “Nevertheless, I don’t think Islam needs to be defended. I’ve never seen a film about Islam that is simply a film — there is always an opinion, for or against … I wanted a film without judgment or blinkers.”
Religion inspires a struggle of a different sort in the Iran-born, Denmark-based Abbasi’s “Holy Spider,” winner of the actress kudo for Zar Amir Ebrahimi at the 2022 Cannes competition. The Denmark-Germany-Sweden-France production spins a semi-fictional narrative around a real person, the Iranian serial killer Saeed Hanaei. Hanaei was a devout Shia Muslim and former soldier who fancied himself on a mission from God as he killed 16 female sex workers in Iran’s holy city of Mashhad between 2000 and 2001. Abbasi and his co-writer Afshin Kamran Bahrami dramatize the events, adding a fictional story about a female journalist who helps bring Hanaei to justice.
Abbasi was still living in Iran in the beginning of 2000s when Hanaei was caught and put on trial. The story really caught the helmer’s attention during the trial.
“In a normal world there is no doubt that a man who had killed 16 people would be seen as guilty,” he says. “But here it was different: a portion of the public and the conservative media began to celebrate Hanaei as a hero. They upheld the idea that Hanaei simply had to fulfill his religious duty to clean the streets of the city by killing these ‘dirty’ women. This was when the idea of making this film came to me.”
Although Abbasi was initially in talks with Iranian authorities about filming in Mashhad, he wound up shooting in Amman, Jordan.
“It was vital to me that we re-create Mashhad’s underbelly in a satisfactory way, and Jordan had everything we were looking for. It’s a relatively nondescript place and resembles almost any part of the Middle East depending on where you look,” he says.
As a Danish filmmaker telling an Iranian story outside of Iran, Abbasi, like Saleh, had the freedom to show everyday life in a more realistic way than Iranian productions required to observe the code of hijab.
He says, “The taboos that are never broken in Iranian films include nudity, sex, drug use and prostitution. But those things remain a big part of Iranian society and they are relevant to my story, even part of its atmosphere.”
The character of the killer is played by the talented stage and screen actor Mehdi Bajestani, who, Abbasi says, put his Iranian career in peril by appearing in the film. He explains, “Western audiences don’t have a frame of reference for the risks he is taking with this role, but it’s the equivalent of a Hollywood star playing a pedophile who commits pedophiliac acts in the movie. He’s also trying to humanize a very distasteful person, which is another risk.” Indeed, after the Cannes screenings, threats forced Bajestani’s relocation to Europe.
Finding a lead female performer for the part of the journalist proved even more complicated. Abbasi cast a young actress from Iran, but shortly after she arrived in Jordan for rehearsals, she got cold feet as she realized that she would likely lose her Iranian career, and she backed out six days before the shoot commenced. The director then turned to the Paris-based Amir Ebrahimi, his casting director, who had been part of the project for nearly three years. She’s an experienced actress whose career in Iran had imploded a decade earlier after her boyfriend shot and shared an intimate tape. Abbasi re-wrote the character around her, and the experience (both personal and professional) that Amir Ebrahimi brought to the part was critical to landing her the Cannes acting award.
The closeted homosexuality of a married tailor who falls for his apprentice in the medina of Salé makes for daring content in “The Blue Caftan,” a Morocco-France-Belgium-Denmark production; daring because same-sex sexual relationships are illegal in Morocco. Director-writer Touzani’s sensitive, humanist drama captured the critics’ award of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section as well as numerous audience prizes during its festival travels.
“The Blue Caftan” represents a paradigm shift in the Arab world. Producer and script collaborator Nabil Ayouch says, “There is definitely a new tendency in Arab cinema to tackle sensitive subjects in a more frontal manner, ignoring certain political or religious taboos inherent to this region of the world.
This new freedom of tone is salutary and reveals the dynamism of Arab societies.
“Also, more and more women are going behind the camera, Maryam being one of the best examples, and succeeding in making it all the way to the top in major festivals.”
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