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. 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-Sissi, 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-Sissi 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.”