“It Was My Responsibility to Tell This Story”: An Interview with Swedish Director Tarik Saleh

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‘The Nile Hilton Incident’ (Nile Hilton), starring Fares Fares, hasn’t been released in Sweden yet, but it’s already an international success. It’s won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah this year, and has been seen over 300,000 people in France, which means this is the most-watched Swedish film after ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ (Män som hatar kvinnor, 2009). Cinema Scandinavia sat down with its director Tarik Saleh known for ‘Metropia’ (2009), ‘Tommy’ (2014), ‘Sacrificio: Who Betrayed Che Guevara’ (2001) to ask him about his second fiction film.

You started out as a graffiti artist, then first directed animations, documentaries, and now fiction films. Did the transition go smoothly?
For me, whether it’s graffiti, a magazine, Nile Hilton or something else, these are all just projects. I think most of the challenges are in your head, and this is the worst because you think you need to know certain things. I think most directors would agree that the most difficult thing is to be yourself. I must say making animations and documentaries are more difficult than fiction films. I’d say I went from the hardest to do something that is actually a bit easier. When you work on a fiction film, you rely on many resources such as the script, the actors, etc. When you make a documentary, you have to deal with reality, and that is a moving a target.

Not a long time ago, a few weeks earlier to be more specific, you attended the Summer Film School Uherské Hradiště in the Czech Republic. How was it and what did you do there?
It was fantastic. That festival is one of the best ones I have ever been to in terms of how it is organised. It was really nice to show old films to a young but huge audience, and have Q & A afterwards. The best experience was, of course, to show Nile Hilton. It’s super interesting to present films in a new context. I also had a workshop, and we had discussions on migration and the European Union (EU). People complain a lot about the EU, some actually want to leave it, but there I got the feeling that young people are really afraid of the idea of leaving it. They love the EU.

You talked about Nile Hilton on a Swedish morning show in 2014, and you said that only you could have written the script. Please elaborate on this briefly.
For example, an Egyptian film-maker living in Egypt could have never realised this film because of the state’s control: raising funds would have been complicated, and no permit for filming would be issued. If for some reason it could still have been made, the film-maker would have taken the risk to become a refugee, which is not an ideal way of living these days. We don’t treat refugees so nicely nowadays. But I did have the capacity to make this film. I’ve lived in Egypt, have family there, know it from the inside, but have lived most of my life on the outside as well as I have a Swedish passport. I felt it was my responsibility to tell this story.

You have family in Egypt, but I’m wondering where the idea of the film comes from.
The plot was inspired by a real event that happened in Dubai 2008. A singer was killed and a businessman was arrested for the murder in 2009. The trial became, so to speak, the O. J. Simpson trial of Egypt. In addition to that, during that time my father and his wife were involved in a battle with a state security over a museum they wanted to build for children in Egypt, which also gave me some inspiration to write the script.

What kind of film did you envision making?
I knew the film had to be perfect and specific, and it had to be exactly what I wanted it to be. We had several discussions on it, and people were like “It could have been like this or that”. However, this film is exactly what it is supposed to be. I didn’t accept anything that wasn’t exactly what I wanted. There were no margins for making mistakes, and this was a bit scary.

What motivated you to use the Egyptian revolution a kind of framework?
This particular story lets me explain why the system imploded. It really had to break down, because it wasn’t sustainable anymore, and people had enough. Things had gone so far away from being reasonable. It was just too much. Sure, corruption is everywhere. We have here in Sweden, there is in Hungary, everywhere basically, but in Egypt, it was on an entirely different level. Normally, in a Swedish or let’s say Scandinavian thriller the focus is on solving the murder, but this film is about the opportunity the murder presents for different people. It doesn’t matter who did it; the question is who is going to benefit from a woman’s death.

In the very last scenes, these two storylines come together in a very powerful way. Did you have this image in your head very early on?
Yes, but, of course, I was playing with ideas. Someone said, “What if the main character Noredin dies?” I said, “No, he doesn’t die”. “What if he shoots the uncle?” “No, he doesn’t shoot the uncle. I know he doesn’t shoot the uncle. You don’t shoot your uncle.” The uncle has a key role. He understands something that Noredin doesn’t. He knows what the crowd wants at that specific moment. Noredin can’t see the crowd because he is so obsessed with the truth about who murdered that woman, and the fact that the suspect is getting away. He doesn’t see that the whole city is changing, and they’re moving against him. Therefore, the last lines had to be very specific. “Okay, arrest me”, says the uncle, and then others are shouting he’s a police officer. At the beginning of the film he is just a gangster who is taking bribes, but at the end of the film, he is actually a police officer. And that particular point in history there is nothing more dangerous than being a police officer in that place.

Sure, it would have been a bit more symmetrical artistically if he dies, but I don’t like symmetry. I think symmetry is very dangerous for art. In addition to that, it would have been extremely problematic historically speaking. Even though security forces and the police were shooting at the demonstrators and killed a lot of them, the crowd didn’t answer with violence. That’s why the revolution was so powerful. So if I had shown that they were killing him, that would have been a lie about the revolution, and I couldn’t do that.

You’ve emphasised how important it was for you to be specific while making the film. The characters are from different African countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan. What about the languages and dialects?
It was important and hard at the same time to get the right people speaking the right dialect. We shot the film in Casablanca, Morocco, and it was difficult to get the Egyptian actors there. Of course, sometimes I had to compromise. For example, the Sudanese people in the film speak two different dialects. The man is Nuer, and the girls are Dinka.

Generally speaking, I’m very specific with these things. I don’t like when I watch a film, and it takes place in an Arab, an Eastern or a Central European country. For instance, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are totally different. Yes, they are close to each other and share similarities, but they are not the same.

I’m not sure how many people will actually recognise the specificities of the dialects, though…
To be honest, I don’t care so much, because ultimately, you do the film for yourself. But, of course, it’s a problematic issue, because when the film is translated into Swedish or English or another language, the essence of the film disappears in a way. The best experience I’ve ever had is when I saw Nile Hilton without subtitles.

You said it wasn’t so easy to get the Egyptian actors to Morocco. Please tell us about the casting process.
We had a casting agent in Egypt who casted all the Egyptians, one in Morocco who casted the extras, and one in France who casted Hichem Yacoubi (Nagy), Slimane Dazi (the Green Eyed Man), Hania Amar (Gina) and the Sudanese such as Mari Malek (Salwa), Ger Duany (Clinton) and Elizabeth Arjok (Mona). I also spent a few months in Egypt, and we had discussions on casting Palestinian and Syrian actors, but you can’t get them into Egypt. Therefore, I had to compromise, but I must say I’m very happy with the casting. Everyone is the right person for the right role.

I wrote Noredin’s role specifically for Fares. I know him very well, and I knew he was going to do
a fantastic job. He worked on his dialect for two months to get it right, and I think he managed to do it very well, even if Egyptians can hear certain things. Ahmed Selim, who is playing the businessman named Hatem Shafiq, is also great. The uncle is played by a famous Egyptian actor who also does an incredible job. That role is actually more challenging than you think because you don’t suspect him. He is so easy-going and juvenile, but, eventually, he turns more sinister. When I wrote the script, I was wondering who was going to play that character, since it was not going to be a simple task to do.

Sometimes it also takes much effort to fund a film. How difficult was it for you?
People loved the script, so it was a very smooth ride – unlike making the film. I think my producer, Kristina Åberg, who is great at raising funds, would also agree that it was an easy film to finance. However, we couldn’t get more money than we got, since this amount (4 million Euros) you usually receive to make a film like this.

You’ve mentioned it was hard to shoot the film. What were the challenges that needed to be overcome?
When you’re aiming at being specific, and when you want to make it exactly how you envision it, it’s really challenging. For example, it’s not so simple to recreate the revolution. It’s a logistic nightmare, especially on a budget. In an American film, it would have taken probably five-six days to shoot those scenes, but we had only one day. However, I was lucky that I had a fantastic crew. My DOP (director of photography), Pierre Aïm is one of the best ones in the world. He worked on films such as La Haine directed by Mathieu Kassovitz. I grew up watching his films. My production designer was Roger Rosenberg, who is the best in Scandinavia. My costume designer, Louize Nissen, was also incredible, and the Moroccan crew, who works on American blockbuster films such as Mission Impossible, was fantastic.

What was difficult is to have everyone see the same film constantly. Sometimes you have to say, yes, this is good, but this is not this film. When you’re tired, it’s easy to say yes to good alternatives, however, as said before, the margins were very small. In a film like Nile Hilton, where you have 165 scenes, a lot of actors, extras and locations, everything you shoot needs to be in the film basically. In Hollywood sometimes 50 per cent of the footage might end up in the garbage. In Europe, we can’t work like that.

You’re travelling abroad soon to work on a film. Can you tell us something about it?
I’m going to the USA to direct a film, but I can’t say what. It’s not my own material, but it’s something fantastic, so I don’t mind. Beyond that, I’m writing as we speak.

Is it going to be a fiction film again?
Yes, it’s fiction, but I’m not sure if it’s going to be a film or a book. It’s incredible what has happened to Nile Hilton, and it’s tempting to make a film again because there is a big audience for it. However, I love books, and I think books are superior to films as an art form. You can watch a film for two hours, but with a book, you can spend a week and build your world. I love that. At one point, I’d definitely love to write a book.

Produced by Kristina Åberg for Atmo Production
Disributed by Scanbox Entertainment in Sweden

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.