Sheikh Jackson, an Egyptian movie directed by Amr Salama, was one of the movies screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend.  The movie portrays the story of a young imam, a person who leads prayers in a mosque, named Sheikh Khalid Hani. He finds himself in a dilemma of questioning his faith as soon as he learns that his idol, the late king of pop singer, Michael Jackson, has passed away. The film then shifts to retrospect as the fanatic imam, played by Egyptian actor Ahmed El- Fishawy, begins recalling memories of his teenage years.  Sheikh Jackson then portrays the character of Khalid Hani in his adolescence, played by Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek, as he reverently admired Jackson and tried to imitate him in his life style. The film further shows how Khalid is referred to as  “Jackson” in school because of his admiration.

In the opening remarks given by Salama in the movie screening on Saturday at Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto, he stated that an identity crisis is what Sheikh Jackson brings to the audience. From the protagonist, who’s a cleric and focused on practicing his Islamic religion, to crisis revolves between him reminiscing about his teenage years, to the possibility of relapsing, to trying to stay religious, to battling both identities.

With actors Fishawy and Malek both being in Toronto this week for the world premiere of Sheikh Jackson, The Medium spoke to them to learn more about their experience. In reference to Sheikh Jackson being selected as the official Egyptian submission to the Oscars as a candidate for the best foreign language film, both Fishawy and Malek expressed how they are both “extremely proud,” but also that  “with such pride, comes great responsibility to try and preserve the quality.”

Since the film was Fishawy’s second collaboration with Salama, he described his relationship with the director by saying, “even when we sometimes disagree about things and we have fights, it’s like two brothers fighting, we are very good friends.” Fishawy further mentioned how the success for the imam’s portrayal can also be attributed to his relationship with his fellow actor, Malek. Malek added how because of the friendship between the two actors, the harmony of their characters, portrayed by both of them at different ages “came naturally.” While describing his experience being on set, Malek anecdotally referred to Fishawy by saying, “he used to bring a lot of food on set. He used to bring the weirdest shit ever! He once came in with a box of Harankash (yellow cherries)!”

In preparation for their roles, both actors described how they were required to learn Michael Jackson’s signature dance moves and had to take dancing classes for approximately four months. “I can’t do the moon walk; Salama and Malek can,” said Fishawy.  To develop his character portrayal of the imam, Fishawy mentioned how he used his memories and experiences from a time in his life when he was deeply involved in the Islamic community. “It helped me a lot, because I could come back to all these memories that I had and experiences, and then just act it out. I reminded myself of some emotional memories and then portrayed them through [the] sheikh,” says Fishawy.

When asked to comment on how the movie revolves around a person’s internal battle between faith and passion, both Malek and Fishawy elaborated on how  “no matter what the battle is within a person, the final call is towards the side the person chooses,” which they further explained that it all comes back to the real preference of either sides, where nothing prioritizes the other, and what matters the most is the person’s own choice.