LONDON: Ask Egyptian director Magdi Ahmed Ali about the issues he seeks to explore in his movies, and he offers up a definitive answer.
“The issue of women in Egyptian and Arab society, and the issue of religious extremism, which threatens life itself and changes the lifestyle of the Egyptian Arab family, taking it back to an era of backwardness,” he tells Arab News.
For example, in 2001’s “A Girl’s Secret” —selected as Egypt’s submission to the 2003 Academy Awards — Ali told the story of an unmarried girl’s attempts to hide her pregnancy. From one project to the next, Ali has looked to ask questions of — and prompt discussion around — Egyptian and Arab society. In 2016’s “Mawlana,” which recently screened at this year’s online-only Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, Ali adapts Ibrahim Eissa’s story of Hatem Al-Shennawi, a charismatic preacher who rises to prominence and must reconcile his religious principals with political pressures levied against him by the state.
After reading Eissa’s novel, Ali felt so strongly about the project that he became the driving force behind the movie. Having gained Eissa’s approval for a film adaptation and brought the production company onboard, Ali wrote the script in just 10 days.
“The phenomenon of new preachers has spread and their influence on society has become overwhelming, thanks to the reluctance of young people to read, and their appetite for social media,” says Ali. “I liked (the idea of) one of these preachers as a person living in a struggle between selling himself to the world of businessmen associated with the state, and his professional and moral conscience.”
Eissa’s novel was not an easy one to adapt for the big screen, however.
“He gave me the liberty to deal with the novel in my own way,” Ali explains. “This enabled me to adapt the time of the film, create personalities, intensify tales and, most importantly, build the main character so that we guarantee the sympathy of the culturally diverse (movie) audience — which is radically different from the literary audience.”
The character of Hatem, in particular, appears to have resonated with movie audiences. “People like his humanity and his sense of humor,” Ali explains. “They even like his hesitation. Young people do not believe characters that do not make mistakes, and lack a human dimension. Hatem is an ordinary, flesh-and-blood character who discusses the most complex issues simply and calmly, accepts challenges and dares to express his beliefs without paying attention to the consequences, which exposes him to collision with important sectors of the state.”
Understandably then, the film relies heavily on an enigmatic performance from Amr Saad as Hatem. Ali had been keen to cast Saad, but also acknowledges that his lead actor had reservations about taking on the role.
“He had worked with me on several TV series,” says Ali. “He is an intellectual actor who studies the characters he embodies, and is loyal to those characters. He brought a sheikh to his home, who gave him training on the recitation of the Qur’an, body language during sermons, eating, and expressing his feelings. He was initially hesitant, because he was afraid of the effect of the film on extremists. But he agreed in the end, and his performance was disciplined and creative.”
“Mawlana” sparked strong reactions upon its release, due to its contentious subject matter and scenes of violence — including a harrowing depiction of a church bombing. But, Ali points out, “The decision of the censors to release the film without deleting even one scene was a message that a large sector of the country is fighting a battle with extremists, and sees the film as a useful part of that. The violent scenes in the film are not shocking for those who know the Egyptian reality, which witnessed more violence than the film presented. I don’t think that Egyptian viewers felt any shock.”
True to form, Ali has another ambitious project in the works, one that looks set to be just thought-provoking as his portfolio to date.
“I’ve finished filming ‘2 Talaat Harb,’ which deals, through four stories in a furnished apartment overlooking Tahrir Square in Cairo, with the state of the Egyptian community over five decades, through a framework of simple and indirect stories,” he explains.
At 67, it seems the award-winning director has lost none of his power to provoke.