Ahmed El Fishawy in Sheikh Jackson (File Photo)
CAIRO - 13 November 2017: Any cinema’s main role is to channel the inner feelings, emotions and thoughts that we carry as viewers. If a movie doesn’t reflect different human experiences, struggles and contradictions or make you ask yourself questions about yourself, your dreams and your hopes, then it has failed its purpose. Sheikh Jackson, helmed by the brilliant Egyptian director Amr Salama, checks all the boxes.
The film raises the timeless and universal question, “What is right?’’ The existential film, which runs just over an hour and a half, transports the audience deep into the life of a bearded young mosque imam named Khaled Hany (played by Ahmed el Fishawy). Hany, who follows the Salafi ideology, preaches at the mosque, broadcasting his ideas and sermons to his followers.
Sheikh Jackson begins in 2009, the day pop legend and icon Michael Jackson died. Hany, just a teen back then, is very passionate about the entertainer and Salama uses the death of Hany’s beloved pop idol as a trigger to reveal the human contradictions, struggles and even the crises of faith that exist deep inside the young sheikh. Jackson’s death is a turning point in Hany’s life because it makes him realize that his old passion for the pop singer still exists—and that it violates his principles as a Salafist.
Despite its simplicity, the movie’s idea—a brainchild of Salama and his cowriter Omar Khaled—is a profound vehicle that succeeds in reflecting the confusion of the young imam and that of each one of us. The ingenuity of Fishawy, Salama, Khaled and actor Ahmed Malek (who plays the teenage Hany), drives everyone in the audience, this reviewer included, to see part of his or her inner soul contradictions, struggles, confusions and faith crises through Hany’s character. The sheikh represents an entire society full of contradictions and struggles as well as many youths who are torn between their desires and what they think is right.
Salama expertly uses flashbacks to depict the protagonist’s sufferings with his cruel father, played by the veteran actor Maged el Kidwany, as a teen living in Alexandria. Hany is pushed to leave his drunk, womanizing father to live with his fundamentalist uncle in Cairo, marking just one of the contradictions in his life.
The flashback rolls to a scene where Hany is shown sleeping under his bed—a Salafist notion to remind oneself of the torture of the tomb. Other extremes are portrayed: Hany forces his wife, played by the talented Amina Khalil, to wear a full veil. “I love you because you love God more than me,’’ she tells him in bed, and Hany is extremely happy to hear this. In another scene Hany cuts off the internet connection after seeing his young daughter watching a Beyoncé video, forbidding her from listening to “this devilish music.”
Hany has another flashback to the time he found his female classmate listening to Jackson and coming home to ask his father and mother about him. “Jackson is an effeminate man,’’ his father responds. “Jackson is a famous musician and singer,” adds his mother, played by Tunisian actress Dorra. In this brilliant scene, Salama shows clearly how the contradictory thoughts were born in Hany’s mind since he was a child.
Later a flashback to Hany’s adolescence shows how obsessed he was by Jackson at this stage. His father attempts to push him to hate Jackson, his male classmates make fun of him for emulating his hair, clothes and movements, but at the same time girls are drawn to him and this gives him confidence—yet another contradictory consequence of his love for Jackson.
Back to present and it is now clear to the audience why Jackson’s death has deeply affected the young preacher. Jackson starts to appear to Hany as the preacher gives his sermon at the mosque, leading the prayer and even when having a discussion with other sheikhs, prompting Hany to approach a psychiatrist, played by Basma. Hany and his psychiatrist have long discussions where he explains his crisis of faith, that he is no longer able to weep during prayers, his nightmares and hallucinations that usually come to him at the mosque, how his mother death dredges up painful memories of his father cruelty’s and finally his failed adolescent love at school.
After a flashback to this love story, the present Hany wants to know what happened to the girl he used to love. He reaches out to her via Facebook, where he is surprised that she still remembers him. He goes to see her and asks her why she used to love him. His hesitation and contradictions reach their peak when he tries to kiss her by force. Slapping him, she confronts him with the words, “You are ashamed of your love for Jackson in the past and proud of yourself now?’’
Jolted, Hany begins to track down his hidden fears and their origins rooted in the past to free himself of them. After realizing that God is great and will forgive his sins, the young sheikh gradually begins to set free his ghosts of the past. In one inspired, deeply emotional, scene he confronts his father after being separated for 15 years, only to realize that behind his father’s cruelty there was a lot of love. Hany’s father reveals how he had longed for his son to come home.
Fishawy turns in a genuine performance, as does Malek. And although they don’t look at all alike, both of them convince the audience that they are the same person. Salama’s directing lives up to expectations—the filmmaker revealed that it took him 35 years of experience, which is his age, to make such a movie, while Ahmed Bishary’s photography accurately reflects the identity crisis of all youth. The film prods us to probe and to search for our identity, and perhaps accept our contradictions.