Tarik Saleh • Director
"A character who fights the totally corrupt systems he belongs to"
by Fabien Lemercier
- Swedish director Tarik Saleh talks to us about the origins of The Nile Hilton Incident, which came out on top at Sundance
After rising to prominence in Critics’ Week at Venice in 2009 with Metropia [+see also:
film profile], Swedish filmmaker Tarik Saleh once again bagged the World Cinema: Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year with The Nile Hilton Incident [+see also:
interview: Tarik Saleh
film profile]. We sat down with the director at the offices of his French distributor, Memento Films, a few days before the first European release of this excellent atmospheric crime film set against the backdrop of the Egyptian revolution.
Cineuropa: Where did the idea for The Nile Hilton Incident come from?
Tarik Saleh: In 2009, with the brutal murder in Dubai of a Lebanese singer. An officer on the national Egyptian police force was arrested and stated that it was a contract killing which he carried out for a very famous Egyptian businessman, the local equivalent of Donald Trump as it were, a man leading a project in Cairo for the construction of a million homes, known as "My City". He was the leader of an empire, he had parliamentary immunity and belonged to a small group of businessmen surrounding the Egyptian president nicknamed "the untouchables". Much to everyone’s surprise, the head of the Egyptian secret services, who was also vice-president at the time and the most feared man in Egypt, asked this businessman, who was in Switzerland, to come back to Egypt to answer a few questions. It was incredible and strange! As sex scandals and blackmail exist in Egypt and have done since the time of the pharaohs, just like in other countries, but in Egypt they are deeply rooted in the system! So this man came back, had his immunity stripped away, was put on trial and sentenced to death. The trial was for Egypt what the O.J. Simpson case was for America: everyone followed it. So I started writing a screenplay based on these events, as I got the feeling it was a sign of the first cracks starting to appear. But I didn’t find the revolutionary side of the situation that I had introduced into the screenplay realistic enough, so I left it out. When the 2011 revolution broke out, I went back over the screenplay and thought about just how prophetic it was, and re-wrote it in light of what was going on at the time. The biggest change I made was to set the story in Cairo just before the Revolution. I imagined what would happen to a criminal investigator assigned to such a case in Egypt back then. What would he do? Simply asking questions is dangerous because he’s close to the circle surrounding the president. And who is he to ask such questions in a context in which no one would have reason to think that he’s doing it to see justice served?
Like in your previous films, Metropia and Tommy [+see also:
film profile], the main character is standing up to a whole system.
I like this concept derived from Greek tragedies of a character who defies the gods. Obviously he’ll never win, but the end result is always fabulous! It’s more or less what being human is about: we fight against our nature. As Paul Valéry put it, "man is an animal trapped outside his own cage": it’s a fantastic metaphor for what it is to be human. A character who wants to fight everything that is considered the norm around him fascinates me. I can identify with him. I think generally speaking there are two types of story. You have the classic crime film, in which someone identifies a problem with the system and solves it, with a bad guy who ends up in prison, and all’s well that end’s well. I’m much more interested in a character who fights the totally corrupt systems he belongs to and run the risk of being completely flattened.
You’ve said that what happens in the film is not as important to you as how it happens.
What matters to me are the details. They’re what make a film worth watching. Because there’s this widespread affliction among storytellers at the moment. You hear them say things like "it’s a very effective scene, a very effective film". But a film isn’t the same thing as a presentation or a speech, it’s an experience. I don’t want to be effective, I hate things being effective. I don’t watch Leviathan [+see also:
film profile] for example thinking "go on then, get to the point". No, I experience it with the characters, and that’s what we need to fight to defend in film.
What are your next projects?
I’m going to be filming in the United States for HBO from 1 September until mid-November, but I can’t tell you anymore than that. Then I’ll be coming back to my own projects in Europe.
(Translated from French)
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