Oscars: A Muslim's Michael Jackson Obsession in Egypt's 'Sheikh Jackson'

Egypt's best foreign-language film submission caused the director to come under fire from all sides in a country where two recent revolutions and the dramatic rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood have cut deep divisions through society.

Director Amr Salama had a hunch that Sheikh Jackson might stoke a fire or two in his native Egypt. Not that it would ever stop him (his previous films have dealt with AIDS and sectarian strife), but in dealing with the somewhat sensitive subject of hard-line Islam, he managed to — at least initially — draw criticism from both sides in a country where two recent revolutions and the dramatic rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood have plowed deep divisions through society.

"People are so polarized when it comes to Islamists in the Middle East," says Salama. "Both sides just condemn and judge the other."

Sheikh Jackson, which bowed in Toronto and will see an early 2018 release in the U.S. (following an awards-qualifying run starting Nov. 4) via Cleopatra Entertainment, centers on an ultra-conservative Islamic preacher and former Michael Jackson fan who suffers a crisis of faith and identity after the King of Pop's 2009 death. The emotional, character-driven drama isn't as far-fetched as it may sound. Salama himself was a serious Jackson obsessive at school (where his nickname was "Jackson" and he had long hair) before becoming "extremely religious" in college, banishing the arts — including music — from his life. After a year and a half, Salama says he "started shifting the other way," adding that there are many other Egyptians of his generation who had their own periods deeply entrenched in Islam. The experience, coupled with him being born and raised in Saudi Arabia — "the world champion of orthodox Islam" — gave Salama the confidence he could "live in both islands."

But in his portrayal of the film's central character — a man with white robes and a beard and someone Salama says is usually shown on Arab film and TV as a terrorist — the director came under fire from the country's liberals.

"After I wrote the first couple of drafts of the script, many told me I was being too sympathetic with the Islamists," he says. " 'You can't humanize these people' — I literally heard that a couple of times. One said, 'Listen, this film is just you trying to make us love those guys more, and this is risky.' "

At the other end of the spectrum, Salama says he was also told the film was insulting to Islam.

Sheikh Jackson's central character, Sheikh Khaled Hani (played by Ahmad Alfishawy) is from the Salafist movement, an ultra-conservative and puritanical strain of Islam. "A Salafist is just a guy who believes we should go back to the foundations of Muhammad," he says. "But actually, these orthodox Muslims were less aggressive than the liberals when it came to this film."

Thankfully, with Sheikh Jackson having moved from script to screen (it was released across Egypt on Oct. 4, topping the local box office), people have been able to see the film as Salama intended, and the criticisms have disappeared. "I haven't gotten any comments anymore, either from outside Egypt, inside Egypt, from liberals, from anybody," he says. "Even if they don't like the film artistically, they don't have a problem with me humanizing the character, because they understand that I'm not sympathizing with the ideology as much as I'm sympathizing with the journey of one man."

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.