Sheikh Jackson: Yet another film about identity

Last month, the first ever Gouna Film Festival opened with Sheikh Jackson, by Egyptian director Amr Salama (La Moakhza, 2014). The film left my friend and I with conflicted feelings, but we differed on whether it should be taken seriously. To what extent can it contribute to a reading of the current film scene in Egypt? What does it say about local films dealing with issues of religious extremism, “terrorism” and identity, which are so often celebrated in western cinematic networks?

I ask these questions after having watched three Egyptian films, all released this year, all depicting protagonists struggling with concepts of religious or national identity. In director Mohamed Samy’s Gawab I’tiqal (Arrest Letter), for example, actor Mohamed Ramadan plays an explicitly radicalized version of the Islamic jihadist character. In Tarek Al Eryan’s Al-Khaliyya (The Cell), a special operations officer in the Egyptian police (portrayed by actor Ahmed Ezz) avenges the murder of his friend at the hand of extremists, in a conflict presented as a battle between “patriots” and “terrorists.” Marwan Hamed goes even further in Al-Asleyeen (The Originals), which features a mystery entity that has most Egyptians under surveillance. In this context, Salama’s latest can be viewed as a single component in a much larger picture, and therefore cannot be analyzed in isolation.

Salama’s film is more focused on the protagonist’s internal conflicts rather than on the dramatic progress of events. The personality, history, and internal contradictions of Khaled (Ahmed Al-Fishawy) are the film’s driving force. In this manner, Salama avoids the superficiality of the common formula used for tackling social issues, in which broad-stroke characters are employed to represent large segments of society. In fact, one of Sheikh Jackson’s strengths is that, in its dramatic approach, it condemns neither its protagonist nor his choices. It is disappointing, however, that no other dimensions of Khaled’s personality are seriously explored save for his religiosity.

As the film begins, we are introduced to him through the lens of his religious identity. We follow his morning rituals; we hear him recite a morning prayer, then an ablution ritual. We follow him as he leaves home, goes to the mosque and finds his place at the microphone. Our protagonist is not simply devout; he is an imam who weeps in reverence, praying in a voice that calls to mind the sermons of Salafi sheikhs once widely circulated on cassette tapes. While Arrest Letter attributes faith-based violence to class grievances, Sheikh Jackson points to a different culprit. The film considers patriarchal oppression, conveyed in flashbacks to the main character’s childhood and adolescence, as the main reason for his embracing of Salafi ideals.

When asked about the possibility of the film provoking the anger of Islamists during the Q&A session that followed the screening in El Gouna, Salama rejected the notion. He explained that in contrast to other films that portray Salafis as terrorists or fanatics, his film actually favors the sheikh and avoids passing moral judgment on his character. Although this is true, the film suffers from other stereotypes that flatten the identity of its protagonist.

Because Salama and co-writer Omar Khaled represent music as stirring up the God-fearing Salafi sheikh’s “earthly” desires, long silenced by repression, the film’s treatment of the Salafi character comes off rather caricature-like, prompting the audience to laugh. I’m not claiming that comedy in general is superficial; the problem here is that it does not emerge organically from the plot, but from playing on stereotypes prevalent in representations of Salafi sheikhs in popular culture.

The director’s vision reinforces the polarity of the “earthly,” represented in music, versus “the spiritual,” represented in piety. Cinematographer Ahmed Beshari uses high camera angles in the scenes where the sheikh leads prayers, in contrast to the more natural perspective adopted in the scenes of his adolescence (portrayed by Ahmed Malek), when the long-haired Khaled was still at peace with the music and dance moves of Michael Jackson. In the end, “earthly” music triumphs, emphasizing the inevitable dead end in adopting such a dialectic approach: life and joie de vivre in opposition to Salafi faith and the afterlife.

Sheikh Jackson has come to cinemas at a time when European and local cultural institutions are approaching art as a weapon to confront faith-based extremism in general and Islamic extremism in particular. This, however, does not really signify a new policy, but rather a recycling of cultural enlightenment practices that have long been ingrained in Egypt and the region.

The ideas in Sheikh Jackson — screened in Toronto, then El Gouna, and heading later to London — resonate with what I heard from producers, distributors and sponsors during the CineGouna Platform panel discussions I attended during the festival. They all agree on the necessity of “universalizing” cinematic language to allow global audiences to identify and empathize with films’ characters. Perhaps what I saw as “superficial” from the perspective of a local viewer could in fact help make a culturally encrypted phenomenon like Salafism more accessible to a foreign audience.

As the credits rolled, I noticed that the filmmakers resorted to an “Islamist Consultant,” a job title that, to my ears, resembles those of the Islam experts often employed by American and European research centers and think tanks. This fact further highlights the need to discuss Sheikh Jackson as part of a larger global wave of interest in issues of identity.

Translated by Assmaa Naguib

Ahmed Refaat 

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