CAIRO, Sept 23, (Agencies): An Egyptian ultraconservative Muslim preacher hears on his car radio news of the death of Michael Jackson, the pop singer he idolized in his teens, and he becomes so distraught he crashes his car.
The news of the passing of the King of Pop is the start of a crisis of conscience for Sheikh Khalid Hani, the main character of the movie “Sheikh Jackson”, Egypt’s first feature film to focus on the religious movement known as Salafis, followers of one of the strictest interpretations of Islam.
It follows Sheikh Hani, a Salafi, as his love for Michael Jackson throws him onto a bumpy journey to discover his own identity, mirroring how Egypt’s conservative society is torn between its Islamic and Arab traditions and Western culture in an age when television, telecommunications and social media bring together people and cultures from all corners of the world.
“I no longer cry while I am praying. That means my faith is faltering,” Hani confides to a female psychiatrist in one scene. Crying while praying, he explains, reflects his fear of God.
The film goes beyond examining Salafis, says the director, Amr Salama. “It’s about humanity … It tells you that one’s identity is not a single dimension or an unchangeable thing,” he told The Associated Press just days before “Sheikh Jackson” premiered in the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month.
It’s a journey Salama has some experience in: He was a huge Jackson fan in his teens and then became Salafi during his university years, before moving away from the movement.
Salafism is one of the most closed, uncompromising visions of Islam. Its doctrine is primarily built around what its followers believe is emulation of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). They are easily recognized by their chest-long beards and robes that reach to just below the knees. They shun music, film and dance and outside influences seen as decadent. Salafi women wear the all-covering niqab, including veils over their faces.
Followers view life as little more than a transitional phase and are contemptuous of worldly pleasures. Immortality in heaven is their chief goal.
When Hani goes to the psychiatrist — who he thought by her ambiguous name was a man — he asks her to put on a headscarf during their sessions. She refuses, and throughout their talk, he can’t look at her. When she asks him the last thing that made him feel alive, his response comes from Salafi doctrine: “I bought my shroud and wrote my will.” He occasionally sleeps under his bed, convinced that it is the closest thing to being inside a grave, thus a reminder of his mortality.
But Jackson’s death revives in Hani the obsession with the singer he had in his teens, when he imitated the star’s look and dance moves. It earned him the nickname “Jackson”, but also the disapproval of his macho father.
“He is effeminate,” the father says of Jackson. But Hani’s mother whispers to him, “He is the world’s best singer. But keep that as our little secret.” When the mother dies young, Hani’s father turns into a serial womanizer and becomes violent, beating Hani for imitating his idol.
When the adult Hani discovers his own daughter — around six or seven — watching videos of Beyonce, he tears out the Wifi and denounces “dancing to the devil’s tune.”
The film, which is to be released in Egyptian cinemas later this month and which Egypt has put forward as a candidate for a best foreign film Oscar nomination, goes into delicate territory.
Thousands of Islamists have been jailed under the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was elected after leading the ouster from power of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 and who has faced a fierce militant insurgency. Depicting Islamists with even a hint of positivity can bring questions from authorities and security agencies.
Still, while some Salafis have been jailed in the crackdown, the government has tolerated parts of the movement, in part because some Salafi political parties lined up behind el-Sisi after the Brotherhood’s ouster.
Salafism has been the fastest growing Islamist movement in Egypt for the past decade, and it covers a spectrum. Some Salafis are relatively engaged with other parts of society, often as successful businessmen; some separate themselves to avoid sinful influences; others denounce society outright as “kafir”, or non-believing. A militant fringe embraces jihad against “infidels” and tyrants.
The film risks a backlash from the public, either by viewers who see as it as too sympathetic to Islamists or, from the other side, as mocking religious beliefs.
“I have neither glorified nor dissed the Salafis,” Salama said. “They are just human beings like us.”
That extends to depictions of Salafi family that almost never show up in films. Hani’s wife understands his turmoil after Jackson’s death. At one point, Hani tells her he loves her because she loves God more than she loves him.
In a scene many parents could sympathize with, their young daughter watches her parents with disapproving bemusement as they drive her to school, joyously singing a religious hymn they heard on the day they met. Embarrassed, she asks her father to drop her off far from the school gate.
The movie builds Salama’s reputation as a director willing to take on some of Egypt’s thorniest issues. His 2014 “Excuse My French” dealt with the forms of subtle discrimination that Egypt’s minority Christians face, while the 2011 “Asmaa” portrayed the social stigma endured by those who are HIV positive.
Still, neither of the previous films was a box office hit, despite critical acclaim. “Sheikh Jackson” is unlikely to fare better in a country where comedies and action movies are the only sure winners.
“Salama has the desire to be different and that’s why his movies are not a commercial success,” said film critic Magda Kheirallah. “But the important thing is for the director to save himself and not surrender to the logic of the marketplace.”
Several dramas in recent years have attempted to fathom the mindset of a suicide bomber. Iraqi-Dutch director Mohamed Al-Daradji comes up with a different, emotionally accessible approach in “The Journey” by surrounding his fictive terrorist’s mission within a panoply of train-station humanity, a gambit that at times is strongly reminiscent of vintage neorealist slices of life. Expertly juggling suspense and various narrative strands, never quite succumbing to the sentimentality it sometimes flirts with, this compact microcosmic tale should win over audiences on the festival circuit, and quite possibly beyond.
A young woman who says she’s called Sara (Zahraa Gandour) removes her headscarf before entering Baghdad Central Station in late 2006, when the facility is about to re-open after years of devastation. The place is crawling with military, police and other security. Grim-faced, she does her best to blend into the crowd while examining those unlucky travelers, peddlers and others who are unknowingly about to become part of the deadly plan she’s been persuaded to execute: “Purifying this place from the Americans” via the explosives wrapped around her midsection, which to inquisitive eyes make her look a few months’ pregnant.
The mini-dramas she spies in this quiet before the anticipated storm include the pushy salesmanship of a flower-selling tot (Huda And Al Ameer), who berates her passive, stammering shoe-shine brother (Hayder And Al Ameer). The leader of a group of strolling musicians (Ali Al Khassaf) is confronted by his erstwhile betrothed (Iamen Laeibi Mahdi), who harangues him for making her wait 22 years — even though he spent all that time in a POW camp. A teenage bride (Zahraa Emad Abdul Hussen) ponders escape from her scolding mother (Kazemih Hindi Imran) and the imminent wedding she’s clearly being forced into. A distraught-looking woman (Haneen Raad Qasim) hovers around with a large duffel, looking more suspicious than Sara herself.
Sara’s coolly judgmental observation of these scenes is intruded upon in most unwelcome fashion: Salam (Ameer Ali Jabarah), a hirsute hustler already heard barking on his cellphone and harassing passers-by, takes notice of her sitting alone. Seeing nothing more than a pretty girl, he can’t help but press his loutish attentions on her — so aggressively that in short order her secret has been detected. To shut him up, she plants an explosive device on him and takes him as her hostage. He tries to talk her out of her plans, even as they pretend to be a couple. That ruse doesn’t prevent them being interrogated by US soldiers, whose bullying, profane manner (Sara understands some English) does nothing to elevate her opinion of the “infidels.”
But Sara’s determination begins to wobble when the aforementioned furtive woman impulsively presses on her and Salam the contents of her package — a baby, whose illegitimate conception has made the mother a fugitive from her own family. His tender side emerging, Salam contends the infant is an argument for life and mercy; Sara isn’t so sure.
Packing a lot into a short narrative time span without seeming overstuffed, “The Journey” (which Al-Daradji co-wrote with Isabelle Stead) comes close to mawkish contrivance now and then but always stops short. There’s no finger-wagging preachiness here, and the fundamentalist ideology that has led Sara to her suicidal mission is only hinted at. The result, given the hot-button subject matter, is surprisingly old-fashioned, in a good way: Reminiscent not just of Italian neorealism but classic plays by the likes of Saroyan and Wilder, in which small interactions between characters affirm the value of life with all its sorrows and bittersweet joys. The ambiguous ending may strike some as too much of a gimmick (as well as a very familiar one), but it works well enough.
Strong performances all around are highlighted by Gandour as a central figure whose backstory remains cloudy, but whose steely fervor is never in doubt. For much of the running time, her eyes are so hollowed-out it’s as if Sara has already checked herself into the afterlife she anticipates as her reward for this terrorist act. The tech and design contributors help make the station and its surroundings come alive, teeming with activity that Duraid Al-Munajim’s nimble camerawork captures in consistently stimulating but never gratuitously showy terms.