A Crisis of Faith
The death of Michael Jackson throws a strict Islamic imam into a crisis of faith in Amr Salama’s “Sheikh Jackson”, Egypt’s official Oscar submission. This is an offbeat, affecting and thoughtful drama about conservative imam Sheikh Khaled Hani (Ahmad Elfishawy), whose strict, devout life turns upside down upon the death of his onetime idol, Michael Jackson.
The script by flips between the adult Sheikh’s tormented 2009 present and his 1991 teenage past, when the younger Khaled (Ahmed Malek) became fixated with Jackson to the embarrassment of his widower father (Maged El Kedwany) and the pleasure of a pretty, musically inclined classmate.
Khaled’s eventual turn toward God and away from his dubious dad is haunting. However, it’s the cleric’s King of Pop-inspired crisis of faith and the ways it’s manifested and ultimately assuaged that gives the film its unique depth. Salama gently and effectively examines the role religion can play in one’s life and outlook as seen against a secular, more free-thinking existence that may offer greater movement but not always better choices.
The film uses some clever dream and fantasy bits, as well as a Jackson lookalike (Carlo Riley) and these help channel the superstar and his work. I learned here that Michael Jackson had an unusually intense cult following in the Arab world, his albums circulated underground and later fleeing legal and financial problems at home, Jackson briefly found sanctuary in the Gulf state of Bahrain, where he reportedly looked into converting to Islam. One of the film’s two interwoven timelines takes place in the city of Alexandria in 2009. A respected pillar of his community, conservative preacher Sheikh Khaled Hani (Ahmad Alfishawy) lives a joylessly strict life, even sleeping beneath his bed as a constant reminder that death is forever close at hand. He insists that his wife wear a full veil in public. Once finding his daughter watching Beyonce videos online, he warns her against the sinful perils of “dirty dancing” and “diabolical music.”
But then the shock news of Michael Jackson’s death shows a hidden side to the puritanical Sheikh. Flashing back to the early ’90s, we meet the young Khaled when he was a huge Jackson fan and mocked by his classmates for mimicking Jackson’s hair and dance moves. Khaled’s very public musical passion also earns him female attention at school.
Jackson’s death leaves the adult Sheikh shaken, questioning his religious faith and life choices. It also throws up painful memories of his mother’s death, his father’s cruelty and his classroom romance. He begins to suffer nightmares and hallucinations, including spooky Shakespearean visitations from Jackson himself (played by professional MJ impersonator Carlo Riley) during prayer sessions at his mosque. Almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he consults a psychotherapist and begins tracking down estranged figures from the past, hoping to find some kind of closure. “Sheikh Jackson” is a bit too serious and straight-faced— its protagonists often seem unsympathetic, its tone is sometimes too melodramatic, but it is also an offbeat charmer that runs with its bizarre conceit. Then there is a total absence of any Michael Jackson music. Unable to license any original songs, Salama is uses Hani Adel’s pastiche score, a weak imitation of the Jackson’s high-gloss sound.
Michael Jackson was a significant, oft-forbidden symbol of rebellion in many Arab nations for many years, But Salama and Omar Khaled’s screenplay doesn’t really make it clear for Westerners just what this singular performer’s appeal is for Khaled. We do not understand what Jackson represents or expresses that Khaled himself cannot.