Egyptian filmmaker Magdi Ahmed Ali explores religious extremism in ‘Mawlana’

“Mawlana” is a 2016 film. (Supplied)
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Updated 30 July 2020

Egyptian filmmaker Magdi Ahmed Ali explores religious extremism in ‘Mawlana’

  • ‘The decision of the censors to release the film without deleting a scene was a message’ the acclaimed Egyptian director says

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.

Magdi Ahmed Ali is an Egyptian director. (Getty)

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.

“Mawlana” recently screened at this year’s online-only Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. (Supplied)

“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.”

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - DECEMBER 10: Director Magdi Ahmed Ali, Dorra, Amr Saad, Reham Haggag and Ahmed Magdy attend The Preacher photocall during day four of the 13th annual Dubai International Film Festival held at the Madinat Jumeriah Complex on December 10, 2016 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for DIFF)

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.”

The film relies heavily on an enigmatic performance from Amr Saad as Hatem. (Supplied)

“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.

Top trends for next spring from global fashion weeks

Updated 21 min 58 sec ago

Top trends for next spring from global fashion weeks

  • Six of the hottest tips from the catwalks (virtual or otherwise) of fashion month

MILAN: Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the international fashion weeks in New York, Paris, London and Milan recently were a mix of physical shows and digital presentations. And it wasn’t just the events themselves that were affected by the coronavirus — many designers from around the world showed collections that were clearly influenced by social-distancing and lockdown, in often-contradictory ways. Whether that was the somber color palette of Simone Rocha in London, the face coverings and gloves that dominated several shows, or the more subtle nods to our ‘interesting times’ through the DIY vibe of crochet (Alberta Ferretti, for instance), the unexpected return of the sweatsuit (particularly predominant in New York Fashion Week), and the aspirational glamour of flamboyance and glitter. Tom Ford, who presented his Spring ’21 lookbook via video, provided plenty of the latter and suggested it was because he wanted to present clothes that “make us feel good” and hold out “hope of a happier time.” A sentiment that — regardless how you felt about his sequin-usage — was hard to find fault with.


Some designers — Molly Goddard in London, Salvatore Ferragamo in Milan — went bright, others were more muted — Max Mara’s sand and beige, say — and some were both — Boss in Milan, with shocking pink, cream, and sand examples. But they all seemed to agree that single-color clothing will be en vogue in spring next year. It’s bold and confident, certainly, and hopefully reflects how consumers might be feeling by the end of the winter.


If monochrome isn’t your thing, maybe you’ll feel more at home with another major — almost opposite — trend that saw many designers stamping all over conventional fashion wisdom. Cardinal sins were everywhere: Mixing colors that ‘shouldn’t’ be mixed (Pucci’s multi-colored tights), pairing patterns that shouldn’t be paired (stripes and squares!), throwing in animal prints willy-nilly, or, like Sunnei, constructing a shirt dress from four different plaid patterns. It was chaos, and all the better for it


Oversized clothing was everywhere in fashion month. Boss (again) had large sporty jackets in its Tik-Tok-streamed show; Louis Vuitton’s Paris show displayed a largely asexual collection — plenty of oversized jackets and blazers, along with ‘roomy’ pants; and Chloé paired voluminous blouses with high-waisted shorts and trousers. And mammoth handbags were ubiquitous throughout the month. Some observers suggested the super-sized clothes encouraged/forced those around to grant the wearer more personal space in these socially distanced times, others saw them as a throwback to Eighties power dressing. Either way, big is in.


From Tom Ford’s aforementioned sparkly sequins in New York to Molly Goddard’s dazzling A-line dresses in London via the floral prints beloved by Loewe in Paris and Valentino and Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini in Milan (the latter put on an open-air show, whether because of COVID or because flowers were such a dominant motif we’re not sure), many designers were clearly aiming to lift our collective spirits with a healthy dose of bright, bright beauty. And who could blame them?


For the last couple of years, retro fashion has been dominated by Eighties and Nineties throwbacks. If Simone Rocha and Erdem, to name but two, are to be believed, we’ll be looking a little further back for spring 2021 — almost 100 years further back. Rocha’s understated collection showed clear Victorian and Edwardian influences with its puffy sleeves, voluminous skirts and high necklines, while Erdem’s dramatic collection also pulled from Ye Olde Worlde, but somehow managed to seem more up-to-date than anyone.


Whether the non-medical-grade facemasks (see Oak & Acorn, Rick Owens) or other face coverings (Chanel’s veils or Paco Rabanne’s sequined hoods) and gloves (Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini’s rubber gardening gloves or Fendi’s bodysuits with attached gloves) are really what designers believe we’ll want to be wearing in the spring or simply a recognition of the current global situation it’s hard to say. But they were certainly impossible to ignore.