The Sheikh Jackson Movie Controversy

Review by Ahmed Kafafi


The fact that the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, is featured in an Egyptian movie and associated with an Islamic Imam, is an attention-grabbing storyline that could be the reason behind its Oscars 2018 nomination for the best foreign-language film.

People initially believed that the movie would be a parody of the late renowned pop-star’s conversion to Islam in his last few years. The idea could have sparked off a different screenplay in the mind of its director and co-writer Ahmed Salama, whose movie has appeared in international film festivals in Toronto, as well as Gouna, Egypt and London.

In fact, “Sheikh Jackson” is a lot more than that. In the minds of many who have seen the trailer, the movie is thought to have been a hilarious comedy. Far from it, it is a profound philosophical drama that touches strongly on the issues of religiosity and freedom, the truth about piety and the puritanical approach to religion as opposed to moderation and true understanding of the spirit of worship.

The movie was released in Egypt during the first week of October after it was publicized through several international screenings. It has been severely criticized by the clerics who deem it an insult against Islamic Imams. However, Salama is defending his movie as a simple story about a traditional Imam who is haunted by his teen memories that begin to shake his outlook on faith.

Starring Ahmed El-Fishawy, Ahmed Malek and assistant actors Maged El Kidwany, Basma and Amina Khalil, the film tells the story of Khaled Hany (El-Fishawy), a puritanical Imam of a mosque, who is severely pushed to an ascetic religious attitude due to a bitter childhood experience. His mother dies when he is ten and he has to deal with a womanizer father (El Kidwany) who detests seeing his son copy the effeminate pop star’s hairdo, wardrobe and dance moves.

The Imam’s isolation takes him on a journey to the underworld, represented through scenes that show him going to the graves where he is both tortured and blessed. Every time he does so, a familiar figure pops in: that of Michael Jackson. The visits of the specter intensify as news of Jackson’s death spreads like wild fire in 2009. Only then is the story interrupted by the second plot which depicts, in irregular sets of flashbacks, the man’s teen life, and we get to see adolescent Khaled (Ahmed Malek) becoming a copy of Jackson.

At school, he is nicknamed after the singer and he spends all of his money on his albums and posters. Khaled’s female classmate develops feelings for him after he becomes an image of the star. When the teenager fails to tolerate his father’s cruelty, he asks for the support of his uncle, a narrow-minded fanatic, who makes him believe that only when he renounces his attachment to Jackson will he find true peace.

But is Michael Jackson the real sin that distances Khaled from his faith? The juxtaposition of the Imam’s past and present definitely raises a few questions. For many puritanical Muslim worshippers, the way to Allah could be a complex process that starts as a kind of atonement for innocent spontaneous doings that at a time they perceive as guilt.

Following Jackson’s death, Khaled ceases to cry during prayers and no longer enjoys the company of his wife or daughter and opts to be alone so that he could fathom that kind of change. Eventually, the story develops in a way through which we come to believe that Puritanism is not the ideal way to grasp the spirit of God. It is not that fondness for Jackson, as much as his teen crisis, that causes Khaled’s isolation, so the pop singer is acquitted of that corrupt influence.

It is hard to say how cinema-buffs are responding to the movie. The presence of Jackson’s name could be in itself so enticing that many have expected it to be a hilarious comedy, but their expectations are reversed as soon as they see a double plot, several flashbacks and the complexity of an Imam’s dilemma that has little to do with the pop star. However, one has to give credit to the performance of both Malek and El-Fishway. Malek impressively portrays the young Khaled who attempts to overcome his pensive philosophical nature through his admiration for Jackson. Similarly, El-Fishawy brilliantly reveals the Imam’s dilemma that underlines the conflict between the inroads of the teen sufferings and the resistance against the wind of the inner change.

The first question everyone asks: who played Michael Jackson? A good question, especially when we get to know that the Imam’s ruminations of Jackson are represented through a copy of the singer’s real shows. A viewer who is less familiar with Jackson’s albums won’t realize that this is not the star’s music. According to press reports, Salama has tried hard to obtain the rights of using Jackson’s songs, but his request has been turned down. For many, that might put the brakes on a project where music plays a crucial role, but Salama — who hired Carlo Riley, one of the world’s top Jackson impersonators, to appear in several scenes — was not deterred. Finally, his biggest challenge has been to convince people that his work is not actually a comedy.

With high expectations, cinema critics are looking forward to how the movie will fare at the Oscars. At the end of the day, its political message could be one of its biggest pluses: extremists against moderates.