The story of Jesus and the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt is to be reproduced in a new film titled “Al Massih” (The Messiah), scheduled for release in 2011. This big budget production – estimated at LE 50 million – revolves around the character of the infant Jesus and his sanctuary in Egypt. The script is written by Fayez Ghali, while up-and-coming director Ahmed Maher will helm the project.
Ghali’s most renowed work is his script for the 1988 film "Youm Helw…Youm Mor" (Sweet Day…Bitter Day) starring Faten Hamama, Mohamed Mounir and Abla Kamel. Maher, a professor of cinematography at the University of Rome, directed the 2008 film "Al Mosafer" (The Traveller) starring Omar Sharif, which has not yet been screened in Egyptian cinemas. Al-Masry Al-Youm met with Maher and inquired about his plans and ideas for this Eastern Jesus-flick.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Did you encounter any difficulties from the Coptic Orthodox Church, or its representatives, regarding the script of Al Massih?
Ahmed Maher: Not really. Fayez Ghali presented the script to the representatives of the Orthodox Church in Egypt, and they did not object to its content or message. They found it acceptable. However, in Egypt there are some issues and problems pertaining to the cinematic depiction of prophets.
I don’t want to cause any problems with this movie, I just want to express my views – not as a Muslim or a Christian, but as a director. I hope that this movie will serve to do away with religious fundamentalism in Egypt – be it Muslim fundamentalism or Christian fundamentalism. I have encountered criticism regarding this movie on Internet forums and elsewhere, although we haven’t even started filming yet. I expect that Christian and Muslim fundamentalists will object to this movie. I expect controversy, and I hope for civilized dissent. However, I hope that this movie will overcome sectarian sentiments.
Al-Masry: Which production company are you working with on Al Massih?
Maher: We are working with an English production company, the name of which I shall withhold for the time being, and with Mohamed Gohar from the Video Cairo Production Company.
Al-Masry: News reports indicate that you have contacted Morgan Freeman and Samuel Jackson, for the role of Joseph, as well as Monica Belluci. Is this true, or are these just rumors?
Maher: We are still contacting actors for this movie. But we have not signed any contracts with actors, be they international actors, Egyptians or other Arab nationals. Morgan Freeman and Samuel Jackson were names that we have been considering for the role of Joseph. Ben Kingsley is another candidate for this role. We are also considering Monica Belluci for the role of Salome. This is still an ongoing process.
Al-Masry: What language or languages will you be using in this film?
Maher: This is also an issue which is still being discussed. Will it be in English, Arabic or Aramaic? Whatever the language we are going to utilize we intend to subtitle it. We will most likely produce an English version and an Arabic version.
Al-Masry: This movie will be the story of the infant Jesus, and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, from an Eastern or Egyptian perspective. Is this accurate?
Maher: Yes. We are also focusing on the historic role of Egypt as a safe haven, a refuge and a sanctuary for exiles, the persecuted, and outcasts of this region. This movie is an attempt to underline Egypt’s history of tolerance and its respect for peoples of different races, religions and world views. The movie is also an attempt to contrast this historically tolerant Egypt with our contemporary Egypt which is increasingly troubled by religious sectarianism, fundamentalism and intolerance.
Al-Masry: In the Bible the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt is only very briefly mentioned in the Gospel according to Matthew, and Herod the Great’s “Massacre of the Innocents” is not historically cited. Doesn’t this weaken the basis for your script?
Maher: Well, the flight to Egypt is mentioned in one brief passage in [the gospel according to] Matthew. And while the massacre of infants ordered by Herod may not be historically verifiable we must remember that there are not historical records for every event that occurred over the past few thousand years. So this does not make it untrue. We are using Coptic Orthodox accounts and narratives of the flight into Egypt in this film, which will begin with Herod’s massacre of the children.
Al-Masry: Are you filming only in Egypt, or are you also going to be shooting in Bethlehem and Jerusalem?
Maher: This movie is basically divided into three parts. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, and their return to the Holy Land. Naturally, the part pertaining to the flight to Egypt will be filmed in Egypt. We intend to visit the cites which the Holy Family visited in Egypt and follow their travel route according to Coptic accounts of this event.
Filming in Israel or the Occupied Territories is going to be more difficult. We are going to need a lot of permits expect to encounter many difficulties. If we are unable to do so then we shall film the parts in the Holy Land in either Syria or Lebanon, since their landscape and topography is similar to the Holy Land. However, we want to film the ancient temples – including Roman temples, Pharaonic or Ptolemaic temples, and Jewish temples – and the locations where these events actually took place, to make it as genuine as possible.