It is not often that a priest’s name is associated with cinema. Yet one has just to mention Franciscan Father Boutros Danial and the first thought that springs to mind is the Catholic Cinema Centre and its prestigious annual film festival in Cairo. Fr Boutros has for years headed the centre and directed the festival with outstanding success and a singular humane touch.
This year, Fr Boutros marks 25 years on taking his vows; Watani decided it was an excellent opportunity to talk to him about his diverse interests which range from the spiritual to the media, and from the musical to the artistic. I met Fr Boutros in Cairo, and had this dialogue with him.
At tender age
Beginnings are always a good place to start. “I was born on 1 February 1967 in Alexandria,” Fr Boutros began, “one of seven brothers. I lost my mother at a young age, but even so she left a lasting impact on me. I learned a lot from her, also from my father and siblings.
“I know that today this may sound rather strange, but I first joined the monastery at the tender age of 11. My father was totally against the move, but I was adamant and persisted that it was what I wanted to do. I joined the Franciscan monastery of Abul-Dardaa near central Alexandria, where I remained for three years, then was moved to a larger monastery in Kafr al-Dawwar, some 25km southeast Alexandria. I was later again moved to Giza where I completed my preparatory and secondary schooling, then studied philosophy and theology.”
I could not help expressing my amazement at the young age at which Fr Boutros joined the monastery. “It was possible then,” he said. “There was the ‘Small (Junior) Institute for young novices. Today, one has to finish school, live a normal adolescence and young adulthood, then join a monastery. That way, one would have experienced life and taken a rational decision to become a monk.”
Candy up his sleeve
“What is it that attracted you so much to monastery life at such a young age?” I asked.
“The reason may sound quite comical!” Fr Boutros laughed. “I used to go to the Franciscan School in Alexandria, and my father would take me into the adjoining church to say a prayer every morning. There, I met a Croatian monk who would invariably smile at me with kindness, then pull some candy from up his sleeve and give me one. His gentleness and love captivated me, and I wished to be like him. But I never said that to my father.”
It took long years of growing up and first-hand learning for Fr Boutros to grasp the reality of monastic life. “Later in life,” he said, “I learned how monastic life is not as simple as being kind and gentle to little children. It involves profundity and hardship, and a monk has to learn to accept to do whatever is demanded of him. There are difficulties, criticisms and hostilities even from persons who may be close to him.”
When Fr Boutros took his final vows in 1995, the Franciscan Order selected him among a number of monks to study in Italy. “I was told I would work towards a doctoral degree in music, which made me very happy because I had originally studied music. But later I was ordered to shift to media and press studies. I own I was disappointed, but as a monk I had taken a vow of obedience, so I said “Thy will be done, Lord.” I got a Masters degree in media and journalism.
Fire polishes gold
“So what is the most valuable lesson you learned as a monk?” I asked Fr Boutros.
“When I started work at the Catholic Cinema Centre in 1999, I faced difficulties which some unexpected person placed in my path. But God must have allowed it, because it gave me a great push forward. I put all my effort into investing my knowledge of music and media, and my previous work with the Cinema Centre, into a mission to serve the community. I learned a precious lesson: that no matter what difficulties you face, even if they come from loved ones, you have to accept them without distress. Thank God for them because they are the fire that polishes the gold.
My life in a monastic community taught me many things. As a youngster, I could see only on the surface. But when I really experienced communal life with the monks in Egypt as I studied philosophy and theology, then later when I studied music and media in Italy, I found out first-hand how saint-like many of them are. They exemplified the values of sanctity, sacrifice, humbleness, dedication, and hard work. Even those who appeared rather hard and difficult at first sight turned out to be very gentle and giving on closer contact. They would mostly have organised their time very strictly, putting themselves under stern self-discipline in order to be able to have good time for prayer, service, and social duties.
Catholic Cinema Centre
Moving to Fr Boutros’s famous work with the Catholic Cinema Centre (CCC), the obvious question that begged an answer was: “How did work with the Catholic Cinema Centre Festival manage to combine the material world as embodied in cinema, and the spiritual life exemplified by the Franciscan Order?
“The Catholic Cinema Centre itself was launched in 1949 at the hands of the lay person Farid al-Mazzaoui (1913 – 1988),” Fr Boutros replied. “He was a pioneer: a critic, cinema historian and a prominent figure among those who built Egyptian cinema. Mr Mazzaoui encouraged the Franciscan Friars in Egypt to establish a centre for cinema in order to educate youth. Among those was a priest named Fr Boutros—not me, only a namesake—who liked the idea even though it appeared to have no direct connection to spiritual matters. The start was a two-week screening of various films, each followed with a discussion and critique of it. Young people liked the idea, participating with vigour.
“Soon enough, the self-evident question arose: Since Egyptian cinema offers well-produced films that convey good social and human messages, why not hold a festival and award the best films?” The idea was accepted and approved; the first Catholic Cinema Centre Film Festival was born in 1952 with the express aim of encouraging filmmaking with human and moral values.
“We have photographs,” Fr Boutros said, “of many stars—actors and actresses—who were honoured by the Catholic Festival while only at the beginning of their careers.”
Fr Boutros recalls those good old days. Egyptian star actress Faten Hamama (1931-2015), who was ranked as the “Lady of the Screen” once stopped me on a chance encounter in the street to tell me that the first prize she was ever awarded was by the CCC Festival when she was only 17 and at the outset of her career. “That first prize gave me the push I needed to be confident and to flourish,” she said.
All the actors and actresses we honoured were unanimous about one view: that it was an exceptional feat to get to be honoured by a religious institution—in this case the Catholic Church. “But,” Fr Boutros pointed out, “we do not honour just any film; only the ones focused on humanistic, social and artistic considerations.”
“When exactly did you become head of the CCC? I asked Fr Boutros.
“Because I had studied music side by side with the media, I was well positioned for nomination to hold that responsibility, especially given that Fr Youssef Mazloum, the then head of the CCC, was ill. I joined the centre as Fr Youssef’s deputy in 1999 and remained so till 2010, after which I held full responsibility.
Journey of a Star
“In 2007,” Fr Boutros continued, “after renovating the hall where the festival was always held, we embarked on a set of new activities. Among these was “Journey of a Star” through which we reviewed the works of singular actors and actresses, and honoured them. Some of them were already famous, but some were not well known.
So far we have honoured 14 stars among them the outstanding actors Omar Sharif (1932 – 2015); Gamil Ratib (1926 – 2018); Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz (1946 – 2016); Nour al-Sherif (1946 – 2015); also veteran comedian Adel Imam (born 1940) and luminary actress Youssra (born 1951).
We also honoured great theatre figures including Yehia al-Fakharany (born 1945); and Muhammad Sobhy (born 1948); as well as Egyptian musician and composer Ammar al-Sherei (1948 – 2012); and Lebanese iconic singer, composer, and actor, Wadieh al-Safi (1921-2013).
“To honour Mr Safi, who was then over 80 and in hospital in Lebanon, we visited him there. He was very moved and accepted the honour in all humbleness. He insisted on singing, in a voice that had lost neither its famous strength nor its mellowness, the song Azeema ya Masr (Great, oh Egypt). He stood up to sing it; we stood up too and held high Egypt’s flag which we had with us. It was an unforgettable moment.
“We also initiated other activities,” Fr Boutros said, “such as the “Day of Giving” which we first related to Mothers Day, but later denoted a day for giving by one and all.
Visiting the sick
Another activity that continues till today is the “Ramadan iftar(the meal that breaks the fast at sunset)” held during the holy Muslim month of fasting from dawn to sunset, Ramadan, when we offer a breakfast table to our Muslim friends. Over the years, we changed its name to “Breakfast of Brotherly Love”.
“We also organise visits to hospitals to visit patients who need support such as cancer patients. We invite the actor and actress stars related to us to join in the visits. They invariably come along, and it makes them and the patients so happy. Among the patients we visited were those who were injured during terror attacks against civilian Copts and Muslims, the police and military.”
“I have heard many actors and actresses movingly mention how you were always calling or visiting them if they fell sick. Is this why they are so attached to you and to the CCC Film Festival?” I asked Fr Boutros.
“I thank God for His grace,” Fr Boutros said. “The idea began when a number of us at the CCC visited the master of Egyptian comedy Fouad al-Mohandes (1925-2006), who was then old and sick. We found him terribly distressed because no one had telephoned him or talked to him; he felt he was out of the limelight and forgotten. It moved me so much, and urged me to regularly call our guests to check they’re doing well, to visit them if they fall sick, also to visit those who are no longer noticed. The personal touch of love and care invariably leaves a warm imprint. It makes our guests feel that the festival is not about ‘business’ but carries humaneness deep at heart. As every one of our festivals comes to a close, I always hear the same remark of us being all one wonderful family.”
Addressing hate and drug abuse
It was inevitable to ask Fr Boutros about any special imprint left by the persons honoured by the CCC. “But of course,” he said, “many of them left indelible marks.
“Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz (1946 – 2016), who was very kind, gentle, and humorous, displayed distressed anger at the attacks by the Muslim Brothers against churches in Egypt. He told me he grew up in Alexandria in a family that never recognised any difference between Muslims and Copts. ‘We loved and still love one another,’ he insisted.
“We decided to hold a celebration under the rubric ‘In love of Egypt’ following a string of attacks against churches and violence against Copts. So many actors and actresses insisted in taking part in that celebration to convey the message ‘We all are one’, all Egyptian, no Muslim or Christian.
“We also visited Muslims injured in terror attacks, and gave them Qur’ans and paintings of Qur’anic verses. Our choir sang for them.
“The CCC also addressed substantial causes such as battling drug addiction. It honoured the serial drama Taht al-Saitara (Under Control) and its actor Maged al-Kidwani and actress Nelly Karim, a drama which tackled the drug problem. Egypt’s then Social Solidarity Minster, Ghada Wali, participated in the event, as well as six other Cabinet Ministers.”
“I have fond memories of many actors and actresses, not only as film stars, but also on the human level.
“I remember veteran comedian Adel Imam who bravely played leading roles in films and theatre plays that exposed and mocked Islamic terror. And that was mainly in the 1990s when the terror movement was in exceeding might.
“Actor Ahmed Zaki (1949 – 2005) was among those honoured more than once by the CCC. After his death, it was discovered that all his money had gone to the poor and needy.
“The lovely Hind Rustum (1931 – 2011), the Egyptian screen’s uncontested sex symbol, was a kind and gentle woman of impeccable etiquette. She would never sit down till I did, nor would she start sipping her coffee unless I did so.
“As to the beautiful Mervat Amin (born in 1948), it would come as a surprise to many that she was extremely shy and very humble.
“The great actor Yehia al-Fakharani was once visiting the CCC and heard the church choir sing the first Psalm: ‘Blessed is the man who walks not in the council of the ungodly’. He said it would be perfect to use in a TV drama serial he was working on; we let him use it and he credited us with it.
“Muhammad Sobhy always says that when no theatre in Cairo would let him run his Hamlet, his graduation project at the High Institute of Theatrical Arts, the CCC offered him its theatre. It is an incident he says he could never forget.
“Then there is the illustrious actor Kamal al-Shennawi (1921 – 2011), who was head of the jury in the 1995 CCC Film Festival. He respected our standards so much that he said: “Why should these ethical standards not be applied to one and all films, so that art would have a positive moral impact on society?”
”Lord, grant Thy grace”
Finally, I had to ask Fr Boutros on the 25th anniversary of taking his vows what his aspirations were.
“I ask the Lord to grant me the maturity and grace to go on giving till the last moment in my life,” he said, “and to give the CCC and Egyptian cinema golden times.
“I always thank God for every person I encountered in my life, be that friend or foe, because their influence on my life benefitted me in so many ways. They made me what I am today.”
28 January 2021