When the trailer of Amr Salama’s latest directorial venture, Sheikh Jackson, dropped, I felt like I had it all figured out. I interpreted a few clues from the trailer as the key drivers of drama and flow of events; a kid being dragged out of a hospital room while his father fights with a doctor, that same father pushing the kid, now a teenager, violently in the middle of an argument, the teenager, now a grown man, undergoing eye exams and of course an identity flipping between a a sheikh and a Michael Jackson cosplayer. I saw traumas all over the trailer and thought the film will be a series of abusive encounters scarring a kid for life. Even though that didn’t have any effect on my excitement for the film, being a huge Michael Jackson fan myself, but boy was I wrong!
Sheikh Jackson starts with our title character suffering a psychological crisis that started with the news of Michael Jackson death. The event that shouldn’t be remotely related to his life or his stature as the Imam of a mosque, but we get to learn that the late king of pop was an important chapter in our hero’s life at a young age. The memory of that phase of his life starts to manifest into dreams, nightmares and sometimes visions that disrupt his social and professional lives but, most importantly, it starts to challenge his faith. The events of the film show us who’s going to prevail; the religious and committed sheikh or “Jackson” as he was once known.
The film is a psychological study for a profile that resembles a lot of Egyptian youths at some point in their lives. The key drivers of the story require bit of an effort that I gladly invested thanks to the intimacy that I felt with the story on a personal level. I don’t believe the film is so dependent on this kind of intimacy though, because a lot of tools were deployed to bring the audience closer to the transformations of the main character. We have a non-linear narrative that is not so complicated and helps to keep things fresh whenever a sequence starts to be boring. Adding the component of voice commentary, rather randomly, wasn’t a great addition to the narrative tools of the film but wasn’t so disastrous in all cases.
Another important tool is the deployment of extensive symbolism both clearly and smartly. Clearly, because the key symbols are well framed and stressed upon so that the audience don’t miss it, and smartly because they’re not shoehorned into the dramatic flow of the story. However, the most important tool of all is of course .. Michael Jackson.
The most conservative version of the rebellious figure we all wanted to embrace growing up. A call for attention with a false alert of danger. A flashy look with a noteworthy attitude that can get your Egyptian parents worried, while you’re actually sort of becoming a better person. That’s what I believe Amr Salama, the film director, understood accurately and conveyed skillfully.
With the help of his cast, and especially Ahmed Malek, Salama managed to walk the thin line between making the imitation too silly, or too good. I’m confident that Malek, with some training, could’ve given us a flawless impersonation for the king of pop, and that would’ve been the ultimate flaw. Growing up, we worked hard on our moves and routines to become the best copy possible of Michael Jackson, but of course we were silly and messy. I believe the film was almost completely honest in presenting that .. almost!
Due to complications in acquiring the rights for some of his songs, obviously, there’s rarely ever any Michael Jackson song in the film. That was well compensated for with some sound effects inspired by well known songs for the late legend, and it had no negative effect on the development of the title character, but sometimes you feel like a scene is missing something, like for example the amazing montage of scenes inspired by Michael Jackson hits.
Last but not least, the performance of the cast was a critical tool in bringing the audience closer to the transformations of the title character, which was played by three actors starting with Omar Ayman in the childhood phase. Omar had a few challenging scenes and delivered a good performance.
The teenager was portrayed by Malek, in the best version of the character since all the well introduced traumas and changes happened in this phase. This is where we saw our character assuming the identity of Jackson after falling out of favour with father and this is also where we saw him starting to take the identity of “Sheikh” following another round of shocking experiences. Malek portrayed the phase with familiar excellence and had several impressively intense scenes with Maged el Kedwany who played his father in the film, and who in turn delivered a breathtaking performance. Very rarely do I see a performance that manages to express love through rage, cruelty and neglect .. and without any help from the script.
Narratively, the baton of the character starts in the hand of Ahmed el Fishawy when we’re introduced to the news of Michael Jackson’s passing and that’s the highest point in his performance. The point where he’s faced with the confusing visions that, unwelcomingly to him, force a change in the way he feels about everything in his life. El Fishawy’s performance suffered a bit from the relatively short screen time allocated for this character, which deprived us from useful details about his life and forced a rather rushed resolution to our story in the end.
“Sheikh Jackson” is an admirably personal film that I truly enjoyed, and believed, as an accurate study for a familiar profile. It was indeed worthy of representing Egypt in the foreign film Oscars race though it was never expected to go far.