Tarik Saleh Interview | Picturehouse Recommends

The Big Interview

Hanna Flint

10 Apr 23

The Swedish-Egyptian filmmaker is one of the most provocative voices in world cinema. And he is bucking the system once more with the electric Cairo Conspiracy 

Saleh is a filmmaker known for ruffling feathers – and Cario Conspiracy is no different.

The gritty political thriller, set within the confines of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the world's most famous Sunni Islamic institution, is steeped with deadly intrigue as young student Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) becomes a pawn in a power struggle between mosque and state after the suspicious death of the Grand Imam. 

It's Saleh's second film to grapple with systemic corruption within Egypt's elite after the 2014 release of his acclaimed crime drama The Nile Hilton Incident. It also reunites the Swedish-Egyptian filmmaker with his lead star, Swedish-Lebanese actor Fares Fares, to dynamic effect.

Yet the cost of putting a spotlight on the problematic nature of Egypt's religious and political powers was exile from his parents' homeland. "I was thrown out just days before I was going to shoot The Nile Hilton Incident," Saleh tells Picturehouse. "Once it came out they said, 'We're going to arrest him at the airport if he comes to Egypt.'"

Eight years later, Cairo Conspiracy came into town and proved once again that films about the Arab world, and made by Arab filmmakers to boot, can be just as complex, nuanced and truth-seeking as their Western counterparts. Especially when the writer-director has spent their life raised between two different cultures... 

How do you navigate your dual heritage as a filmmaker?

It's been a journey. I was more obsessed with my own identity growing up, as a teenager, trying to answer the question, who am I? I'm not so interested in who I am today or where I'm from, but I understand it informs everything. The job of a director is to be inside and outside at the same time. That helps when you're an immigrant or a child of an immigrant. That's why the best directors in the world are immigrants. You could argue Stanley Kubrick made himself an immigrant by moving to England. [In my case] there's also a privilege to do it without consequence compared to people that live there. 

How important is it to you to fight back against the orientalist stereotypes of Western films about the Middle East?

This could have been the Vatican or the Swedish Academy, which gets its authority from the King, who gets his authority from God. It could be any institution that doesn't change but then you have the politics that changes it.

Have you read Edward Said's book Orientalism?

Orientalism is one of the most important books to me. I wouldn't have been able to do a film like this without reading it because of the romanticism that is involved – you have to reject that too. It's like with criticism: you can't read a great review of your film and then not read the bad reviews. You will take in both, or you reject both. I had the pleasure of meeting Edward Said. We got into a fight. 

Oh wow.

It was a very honourable thing for me to be lectured by him because he's such a bright, sharp guy. At one time he grew up in Egypt and he went to a Christian college where my family lives and his teacher was Omar Sharif. Omar was born a Christian and then converted to Islam and Edward, in his autobiography, says he was beaten by Omar Sharif as a kid! 

No way! What did Edward Said lecture you about?

We met at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. I said to him, 'Edward, how long are we going to blame our problems on colonialism? Don't we deserve our leaders?' This was before the Arab Spring, and he got really angry. He said, 'What are you talking about? You're talking as if colonialism is over. You're saying that colonialism has ended? It hasn't. What an arrogant thing to say. You sit here in Sweden and say that young people in Egypt and Palestine and Tunisia deserve their leaders?' I was like, 'Whoa.' I saw my own privilege.

You re-read Umberto Eco's The Name Of The Rose before writing the film – how did it influence you?

In the way that he investigates the relationship between art and religion, between politics and religion, and how certain truths have to be hidden because it could make people lose their faith, out of self-interest in those institutions. 

What else has been an influence on Cairo Conspiracy?

John le Carré is the master of the spy thriller but what I love is the ongoing struggle between the East and the West you often find in his books. There is a quote [from 1963's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold], 'You're a fanatic who doesn't want to convert people, and that's a dangerous thing.' That's really on point. At one point I had an atheist in the script but I didn't want anyone that you could hide behind. Every single character believes in God. Now the important question is: whose side is God on? 

Has your own personal relationship with Islam informed the film?

Yes. I've had these wonderful existential and spiritual discussions, especially during Ramadan, when you break fast, with brothers and sisters about faith. Humans throughout history have looked up and asked what the right thing to do is. Especially in Islam, because we believe in the idea that your destiny is written into your soul as you're born. There is this almost philosophical issue that you have to deal with as a Muslim and I was interested in exploring that in a thriller. The artistic community has the right to be suspicious of the religious establishment but my film cannot be shown in Egypt or parts of the Arab world. Whereas you can show True Lies where they paint us as inhuman. You can portray Arabs like animals. 

Would you say the religious and government pushback is because they'd rather have some inaccurate Western stereotype than having something that's closer to the truth?

It's a very complex and old conflict that also exists in the West and especially in America. It's this game that politicians play, because as humans, there is a struggle between heart and mind. The ones that speak directly to the heart have a lot of power. Politicians need those ones to support them. And they have to give them concessions. Al-Azhar recently declared that you should boycott Swedish goods because of the burning of the Quran in Sweden. But what are they really saying? The institution is trying to avoid protests in the street because that could spread and be turned against their own government. 

How do you feel about being exiled from Egypt?

Film critics working for papers that are owned by state security wrote about the film, but when I won the Cannes prize, there were headlines that said, 'You made us proud'. Ok, then. Can I come back? There was a small hope but I knew there was no way. 

What did it mean to you to win that award at Cannes for writing?

It was unreal and I felt so humbled because my heroes were all there. Except for when my daughters were born, and when I married my wife, it was the best night of my life. Backstage, I was tapped on the back by the Dardenne brothers who said The Nile Hilton Incident is 'a film very dear to us'. I was like, "Holy shit, my heroes." It also gave me confidence. I work very hard on my scripts. It takes me years to write them but writing is what I love to do. Directing is something I don't like to do. 


The process of being in the edit I like but I do not like shooting. It's horrible. I used to like it when I wasn't so good at it. When I became good at it, I realised the stakes are so high. You cannot fail one single day, one single scene, not one single set-up. It makes you into an unpleasant person. Whereas [with] writing, time is on your side. You can have a bad day. You can have a bad week even. 

Are you a cinema snack guy?

I am a big snack guy. I always buy popcorn. Salty these days because I'm 50 years old. I shouldn't eat sweet things. 

What's your favourite way to watch movies?

To watch films together with either my wife or the people I work with. My production designer and I watched Leviathan together in the cinema. Directors, we're almost like a species. So every time I see, for example, a film like Holy Spider, it's a triumph. When I see a bad film, I identify with the director. It's not like, 'Oh, that was shit.' It's more like, 'That could have been me failing.' I get depressed that it's possible to make a bad thing. 

Is it anxiety? 

It is but it's not a human right to direct a film that costs tens of millions of dollars. So when you are spending other people's money, making these big films, you better succeed. 

That's why you don't have any hair – it fell out because of the stress!

Exactly!     Hanna Flint

Pick up a copy of Picturehouse Recommends at a Picturehouse Cinema near you, or become a Member

Cairo Conspiracy is in cinemas now — Book Now