Sheikh Jackson is a mainstream popular Egyptian film that entertains and has something to say. For its LFF screening on a Saturday lunchtime, the Mayfair in Curzon was the perfect choice because of the area’s long-term status as important for London’s Arab population. I arrived just in time as the director and his crew were introduced. There were plenty of empty seats but they all got filled in the next few minutes. The audience obviously enjoyed the film and the Q&A revealed that there were indeed many Egyptian groups present.
As the film’s title implies, the narrative involves a fascination with Michael Jackson as experienced by someone who has the honorific title ‘sheikh’ which in this case has a religious connotation as a title for a young man leading prayers in his mosque and training to become an imam. The narrative begins with the family life of a devout young father discovering his daughter’s fascination with music videos on YouTube and then crashing his car when he hears about Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. This appears to trigger a crisis of identity and the narrative reveals itself as a fascinating mix of interior psychological fantasy and more conventional family melodrama. The first strand is developed through a series of hallucinations and disturbances, some of which directly reference Michael Jackson and lead the young man (played by Ahmad El-Fishawi) to eventually consult a psychiatrist, an attractive and confident woman who unnerves the sheikh. The second strand, the family melodrama takes us back to the boyhood and adolescence of Khaled, the sheikh, through a series of extended flashbacks. We see the teenage Khaled (Ahmed Malek) defy his macho father (Maged El Kedwany), a former bodybuilder and now the owner of a gym. Money for music lessons is used instead to secretly enable Khaled to be the coolest kid in school with his Jackson cassettes and original posters. How he gets from Michael Jackson dancing to leading the prayers in the mosque is via familiar tropes of the family melodrama narrative which I won’t spoil.
There are important female characters in the story – Khaled’s mother, his first girlfriend, his wife, his daughter and the psychiatrist – but this is a male-centred melodrama as directed by Amr Salama and co-written by the director and Omar Khaled. Salama (born 1982) has several features to his name already and has attracted major talents in Egyptian cinema to this production which is generating a lot of interest. (It has been chosen as the Egyptian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar competition.) The film is ‘personal’ since the director was a teenager when Jackson was still a global figure and he says it is “almost autobiographical”. During the Q&A there were questions about how the film had been received by Egyptian censors and Salama assured us all was well and no-one was offended when the censors actually saw the film. He suggested that in Egypt audience responses have been positive in the majority of cases.
Western reactions to the film after its Toronto screenings seem to me a little bemused by the central issue of identity and the film is judged to stand or fall on its Michael Jackson sequences. Salama answered a question about this, saying that initially they had tried to get permission for genuine Jackson material but they had only negative responses. In the end he thinks this was good for the film. It meant that they only used their own re-workings of materials. Although this means the sequences aren’t as slick as they might be, they don’t overwhelm the central issue about identity and the personal issues about how important a global icon might be in a relatively ‘closed’ society like Egypt. (It was also interesting to hear how strongly Egyptians in the audience at the Curzon Mayfair identified with Khaled, especially post recent events in the region.) I was very grateful to get this chance to see Sheikh Jackson. I think it is unlikely to get a UK release, but since Clash eventually made it from last year’s LFF, I live in hope.