A hologram of a dancing sheikh: On Amr Salama’s Sheikh Jackson

Amr Salama’s Sheikh Jackson (2017) is a character study of a protagonist who, as stated by the filmmaker in various interviews, is mainly inspired by his own life. The film addresses issues of identity, death and Islamic extremism, yet in its calculated, almost mechanical attempt at tackling these themes, Sheikh Jackson barely scratches the surface.

Written by Salama and Omar Khaled, the film introduces its central character, the yet nameless Salafi sheikh (Ahmed al-Fishawy), as he sobs while leading the fajr prayers in a mosque. We hear him recite a hadith that promises “the fires of Hell shall not touch an eye that has shed a tear for God.” Later, he tells his wife, Aisha (Amina Khalil), about a new ring that he bought: it has a digital screen and tiny red and green buttons to help him keep count of his good and bad deeds throughout the day. This quantitative fixation on reward and punishment establishes the superficial parody of Salafi life portrayed throughout the film.

When the sheikh learns about the death of Michael Jackson, his past idol and a reminder of his troubled adolescence, the news serves as a catalyst to what appears to be a pre-existing conflict, bringing it him to the point of a full-blown identity crisis. He starts experiencing nightmares caused by, as he puts it, “a relapse in his faith.” He can no longer cry while praying, which causes him great distress, prompting him to see a therapist and revisit his past in an effort to work through his current dilemma.

The first flashback sets up the film’s main conflict, which is essentially love versus fear, through revisiting the character’s younger self (Ahmed Malek). Each facet is manifested in one of the protagonist’s parents. His father (Maged al-Kedwany) is a distant, macho gym instructor who admires Saddam Hussein and calls Michael Jackson “a drag queen,” while his loving, angelic mother (Dorra) confesses to her son that she loves the so-called King of Pop, and asks him not to tell anyone. The stark contrast between these two formative influences on the sheikh’s childhood emphasizes the simplistic conception of the film’s main conflict. Moreover, the attempt to set Kedwany up as an abusive father figure while simultaneously making use of his signature humor, occasionally mixed with philosophical wisdom, results in one of the film’s many caricaturish atrocities, although it is, arguably, the most entertaining of them all.

Following one of their violent fights, the father warns his son that he is always watching him, planting a strong sense of guilt inside his mind, which is all the boy is left with after the death of his beloved mother. As the character develops, the film’s focus shifts to a conflict between life and death, represented by two recurring voiceovers: cassette recordings of a Salafi scholar preaching hell and all kinds of divine punishment, and the calm voice of the protagonist’s therapist as she tries to detangle his issues.

To justify the young man’s decision to go down the ultra-religious path that brings him to the present moment, the filmmaker introduces his Salafi uncle (Mahmoud al-Bezzawy) during one of the flashbacks, at the apex of his falling out with his father. He urges his nephew to steer clear of his womanizing father’s sinful ways so he could join his mother in paradise. This one perfunctory scene serves as the only dramatic incentive for the character to turn toward Salafism and build his life around it for 15 years, the time between the teenage flashbacks and the present.

The sheikh’s sessions with the flatly portrayed therapist (Basma) are used as an expository device throughout the film. She tries to help him resolve his internal conflict by cajoling his problems to the surface. After realizing his obsession with death, she asks him a typical, uninspired question about “parts that feel dead inside him” and “the things that make him feel alive.” That this question actually succeeds in prompting him to tell his entire life story, allowing for all the flashbacks that we see, further highlights the shallowness of Sheikh Jackson’s attempt at psychologically dissecting its protagonist.

Nowhere is this more evident than the scene in which the sheikh lies down in a crypt and hallucinates in the pitch black, plunging us into his subconscious. Instead of giving us a look inside the depths of a troubled mind, the film settles for a poorly animated sequence incorporating elements from various Michael Jackson videos, which is rendered even more lackluster by the absence of any of Michael Jackson’s original music, as the filmmakers couldn’t afford the copyrights. This happens throughout Sheikh Jackson: almost every seemingly serious scene ends on a funny or sarcastic note. The film is filled with carefully placed humor that never allows the audience to invest in any negative emotions, even as it wills them to believe the protagonist is rather desperate.

Salama uses colors in a very specific manner throughout the film, to distinguish between each stage in the character’s progression. He chooses pale, muted hues to mark the scenes depicting the sheikh’s dysfunctional adult state, using blue, white and grey in an undersaturated picture. This stands in contrast to the warm sense of innocent nostalgia conveyed through by the yellows and oranges that dominate the flashback scenes. The third palette, colorful and vivid, is used to represent the reconciliation between past and present, as seen in the sheikh’s first scene with the therapist, and his reunion with his high school crush. Such overly bright pictures, frequently depicting exceedingly sunny mornings, are an aesthetic signature favored by Salama and most episodes of Sesame Street.

The film’s defining reconciliatory scene is indeed a childish one. The protagonist, whose name, we finally learn, is Khaled, decides to visit his childhood home to pick up old Michael Jackson memorabilia that he’d stashed away long ago. He meets his father (now fully inhabiting the Kedwany persona and nothing like the character we see in earlier flashbacks),  who—in a naïve, almost laughable confrontation—opens up to his son with absolutely no build up or trigger. As a result, Khaled is miraculously freed of the feelings of guilt that had plagued him for years, and, embracing his love for Michael Jackson once again, finally becomes the dancing sheikh we see on the poster.

Had the theme of relapse, which is central to the film, been followed thoroughly, it could have provided an interesting means to present the story as one of radical change and the ensuing repercussions. Sheikh Jackson, however, is more concerned with its final, sensational moment than the story leading up to it. It is obvious that the image of the sheikh moonwalking in a galabeya was clear in the director’s mind from the beginning, and it feels as though the entire film is a mere ploy to get there.

Attempting to make his film appeal to a wider audience, Salama keeps the elements of his narrative general and archetypical, approaching the art of storytelling as a mathematical equation or a chemical composition of sorts, and creating an unconvincing film as a result. He breaks the elements of the film up and establishes a conflict between them, only to bring them back together in the end with no real consequences. In its conscious and careful choice to abstain from taking sides or condemning anyone, Sheikh Jackson stays true to nothing at all.

Hessen Hossam 

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