After receiving rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, Director Amr Salama’s latest film created a buzz in Egypt, even before opening in local theatres. The film was selected to represent Egypt in the Academy Awards Foreign Films category and was also chosen to open the recently inaugurated El Gouna Film Festival’s first edition. With Sheikh Jackson, Salama explores the personal search for identity , a subject that people can relate to universally. eniGma’s Mohamed Hesham got the chance to chat with the man of the hour about his most recent work and the driving force behind it.

Amr Salama, who also co-wrote the script, describes Sheikh Jackson as a dramedy – part drama with a flavour of comedy – about a religious cleric, played by Ahmed El Fishawy, and Ahmed Malek as his younger self, who experiences an identity crisis triggered by the news of the death of his childhood idol, Michael Jackson. The idea of a film about a religious extremist infatuated by Michael Jackson originally came from Salama’s co-writer, Omar Khaled, who pitched it to Salama three years ago.  Salama immediately expressed his interest in the project, finding a deep personal connection to the protagonist’s story, as he himself, had been a big Michael Jackson fan and also had gone through a religious phase in his life. Salama thus drew inspiration from his own life and his own experiences as he and Khaled wrote the script together, going through 11 drafts before finally setting on its final form.

Salama explains that writing the script for Sheikh Jackson was his most challenging job to date. “Although it was cathartic, writing the script was agony. To turn something that is very personal into a drama that anybody can relate to and enjoy, was really hard.  But I found that writing this particular film was very therapeutic for me.  It was a journey in which I was discovering who I am.  I made peace with my past and accepted my contradictions while writing this film.”

The film revolves around the day the news broke about Jackson’s death, as experienced by the Sheikh.  “I remember my personal experience of that day,” recalls Salama.  “I was in Morocco when I heard the news, and I kept hoping that Jackson wasn’t really dead. I got phone calls from everybody I knew, even from my parents who weren’t so happy with me listening to him back then, but they said they were sorry for my loss. I felt like my childhood had ended that day, because Michael Jackson was my childhood idol.  It was shocking because he was more than an artist to me; he was a signpost for a certain phase in my life.”

Ahmed Malek and Amr Salama behind the scenes of Sheikh Jackson

Using playful contrasts and fantasy dream sequences throughout the film, Salama conveys this bigger meaning of what the Sheikh was going through.  “There is a whole sequence where you watch the reenactment of one of Jackson’s music videos. That was, in a way, my homage to Michael Jackson. I felt like this was my biggest tribute to him,” says Salama.

Salama faced several hurdles during the making of Sheikh Jackson.  He cites teaching the actors how to dance like Michael Jackson as one of the hardest parts of preparing for the film, although he refused to reveal which of the two main leads was the better dancer. “Let people judge that when they watch the film,” he says playfully.

Maged El Kedwany and Ahmed Malek in Sheikh Jackson

The biggest hardship Salama faced, however, had to do with the music score.  Since he couldn’t obtain rights from Jackson’s estate to use his music, Salama collaborated with musicians to compose music that sounded like Jackson’s instead.  As he recalls, “It was really hard to get the rights to use Jackson’s music. I tried everything you could think of.  But, when we were editing the first cut of the film, it actually felt a bit weird putting Michael Jackson’s music in; it seemed a bit abrupt and out of place.  So, when we didn’t get the rights, I felt like this could actually play well for the film, because now we were creating music that was true to the tone of the film and true to the character’s journey with the spirit of Michael Jackson.  I remember sitting with my composers and telling them that we should do music that Michael Jackson would have liked. And I think they did a really good job.”

One of the most impressive aspects of Sheikh Jackson is its remarkable cast of A-list actors, many of these, like Dorra, Maged El Kedwany, Amina Khalil, Basma, Yasmine El Ra’ees and Salma Abou Deif, participated in the film in small but meaningful roles. “I think they just loved the script and trusted me as a director. So, maybe that’s why they accepted,” Salama notes, when asked about how he assembled the star-studded cast.  “Actually, before calling any of them, I was telling myself,  ‘I’m sure this one is going to pass,’ and all of them actually accepted.  I remember whenever I sent the script to any of the actresses, they were like, ‘I wish I could play the Sheikh.’ They loved that part,” he recounts happily.

The cast and crew of Sheikh Jackson at El Gouna Film Festival

Sheikh Jackson was also a reunion of sorts for Salama, Fishawy and guest star, Basma, who collaborated ten years ago in Salama’s directorial debut, Zay Elnaharda (On a Day Like Today), released in 2009.  “It felt like a reunion. We were laughing and sharing memories about Zay Elnaharda. It was so nostalgic. Here we were, ten years later, shooting another film.  A lot of things  had changed since then, most notably Fishawy has gotten a lot more tattoos,” the filmmaker adds with a laugh.

A key character in the film is the Sheikh’s imaginary hallucination of Michael Jackson, played by famous Michael Jackson impersonator, Carlo Riley.  Salama had told producer Mohamed Hefzy that they had to get the best Michael Jackson impersonator out there, and Hefzy found Carlo. “We knew we had to get him, because this would be one of the biggest elements of the film.  And this guy is really authentic. When you see him, you realise that you’re not as big a Jackson fan as you might think,” Salama says.

Carlo Riley & Ahmed Malek at the Toronto International Film Festival

Surprisingly, Salama was never worried about the film not making it to the big screen in Egypt due to what may be considered a controversial premise.  “I always knew that when people watch it – even the censorship people or the religious people – they will know it is not as provocative as they might have thought. They will know that the hype and controversial image around the film is inaccurate,” he claims.

Recounting the film’s reception in the Toronto International Film Festival where the worldwide premiere of the film was held, Salama says it was an amazing experience. “I was really overwhelmed by the reaction. People gave the film a standing ovation. I felt like a Hollywood star, me and the cast,” Salama excitedly recalls.

Ahmed Malek and Salma Abou Deif in Sheikh Jackson

Although many call Salama’s films independent, or “indie” in view of their unique tone, Salama clarifies that this word is not really accurate for the simple reason that his films have production companies funding them, as well as buyers. “Many people call my films independent. I would prefer to call them different,” Salama affirms, adding, “I believe I am part of a new movement of cinema that includes Mohamed Diab, Ahmed Abdallah and Ayten Amin, and, of course, the godfather of this wave is Mohamed Hefzy.”

Throughout his career, Salama has done light comedies, melodramas, and a lot in between, from thrillers to social satires with dark humor. “I love all genres. I don’t consider myself a genre director, like Hitchcock,” he explains. “I like to think of myself as a director who’s aspiring to be another Stanley Kubrick, who did all genres,” Salama adds.  Salama feels that now he has the power to do a bigger scale production.  He is interested in doing an action film, while admitting it could be “something that offers a new set of challenges.”

Most of Salama’s work has been for the big screen, although he has notably worked on the popular sketch comedy, SNL Bil Arabi (SNL Arabia). “I think cinematic films last longer. They have the ability to be written into history,” he states. That being said, Salama tells us he is currently in the process of preproduction for his television series debut, directing a script written by Mohamed, Khaled and Shereen Diab, and starring Amr Youssef.

Amina Khalil and Ahmed El Fishawy in Sheikh Jackson

Salama likes to make reference to “crossing borders” as a general theme in many of his films, including Sheikh Jackson, as well as Asmaa, which told the story of a woman living with HIV, and La Mo’akhza (Excuse My French), which shed light on religious discrimination in the school system. Through such stories, Salama notes, he makes his audience walk in the shoes of a person they would typically never sympathise with. “My films are about people we would call ‘the other’ and rarely humanise or try to know up close and personal. I think that became a common theme in my films, something which I did not become fully aware of till later on in my career,” Salama admits.

Looking ahead, Salama hopes to continue to explore universal themes that resonate beyond Egypt’s borders. Using the uniting language of film, his ultimate goal is to play a part in building bridges and finding common ground with the rest of the world.