Egyptian film depicts faith crisis triggered by death of Michael Jackson

“Sheikh Jackson” was selected as Egypt’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards.

Stark contrast. Poster of the Egyptian movie “Sheikh Jackson” directed by Amr Salama.

2017/11/19 Issue: 132 Page: 23

The Arab Weekly
Marwa al-A’sar

Cairo - It is common for anyone to go through an identity crisis at some point but the protagonist of “Sheikh Jackson,” an Egyp­tian film directed by Amr Sala­ma, suffers a crisis of faith resulting from teenage memories.

The film starts with the recur­ring nightmare of the main char­acter, Khalid, played by Egyptian actor Ahmed el-Fishawy, who is a Salafi cleric, talking to a female psychiatrist, Basma.

In the dream, Khalid is in a cof­fin carried by fellow bearded Salafi sheikhs in white jellabiyas. Af­ter being buried in the desert, he wakes up horrified in his tomb.

“Look for what you are burying inside you,” the psychiatrist tells Khalid.

The situation begins in 2009, when Khalid is so stunned by news of the death of his teenage idol, American pop star Michael Jack­son, that he crashes into a wall while driving.

The news brings back memories of his obsession with Jackson dur­ing the 1990s, when Khalid was a teenager. At the time Khalid had long hair and would dress and dance like his idol. Khalid’s attach­ment to Jackson made the girl he had a crush on once call him “Jack­son” though he was a weak teen­ager bullied by his peers.

The young Khalid suffers from the cruelty of his father, played by veteran actor Maged el-Kedwany. His childhood is affected by the death of his mother. As a teenager, Khalid’s admiration for Jackson is fiercely rejected by his father

Khalid’s enticement with Jack­son stopped when he became a Muslim extremist. For fanatics like him, the kind of art Jackson per­formed is prohibited by Islam. Fol­lowing Jackson’s death, Khalid suf­fers from what he sees as a crisis of faith. He fails to cry while leading prayers at the mosque.

“My problem is that I’m no long­er able to cry,” Khalid tells the psy­chiatrist.

Muslims usually cry out of feel­ings of awe while praying or recit­ing Quranic verses.

Khalid’s identity crisis only deep­ens, with him questioning whether he is Khalid, Jackson or both — “Sheikh Jackson.”

He is neither able to go back to his old self nor maintain his status as a Salafi. For the fanatics he be­longs to, he is regarded as “a former sinner.”

When he begins showing signs of perplexity, his uncle, who plays the role of his godfather in faith, fears that Khalid is suffering from what he considers a relapse.

“The film is remarkable and dar­ing in the sense that it portrayed a Salafi character. The film-maker could have selected an ordinary person instead,” film critic Magda Mouris said. “Rath­er, he presented a fanatic to show the inner conflict inside a human being between what he used to be and what he has become or what has been imposed upon him.”

Khalid’s state causes him delusions, including seeing Jackson among worship­pers at the mosque on more than one occasion. Carlo Riley, a well-known Jackson tribute artist, portrays Jackson in the film.

Salama smoothly moves viewers from the life of present-day Khalid to that of the teenager he was through flashbacks.

“The film’s pace taking the view­er backward and forward is made very well causing no boredom to the viewers at all,” said Tamer Ibra­him after watching the film.

The film draws a thin line be­tween fanaticism and moderate thinking. Khalid hardly accepts to expose his feelings to a female psy­chiatrist but after all he does. Yet he asks her to cover her hair during the sessions, a request she denies.

Fishawy’s performance is out­standing, as is that of Ahmed Malek, who plays Khalid as a teen­ager.

The film has an open end with Khalid attempting to create a com­promise between his past and pre­sent.

“Sheikh Jackson” was co-written by Salama and Omar Khaled and produced by Mohamed Hefzy and Hany Osama.

“The film is based on contrast, depicting a person who used to love Michael Jackson but turns into a fanatic who thinks he could bury his old life. Yet this old life hunts him,” Omar Khaled said.

“We used the idol of that genera­tion to present our idea,” he said, adding that it took Salama more than two years to write the film.

In a recent interview with On Live satellite TV channel, Salama said the film has to do with a “per­son’s relationship with God, high­lighting the discrepancies inside the human being.”

The film was screened in the Special Presentations section at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and other festivals. It was also selected as the Egyptian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards next March. It is being shown at cinemas in Egypt and several Arab and for­eign countries.

Marwa al-A’sar is a Cairo-based journalist.

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