An Egyptian moonwalker at TIFF.
TORONTO: Egyptian director Amr Salama pays homage to the late Michael Jackson in his new film "Sheikh Jackson," a tale of how a young imam struggles to reconcile his desire to be a better Muslim with his love for the King of Pop. The film, which landed a spot as Egypt's Oscar bid for best foreign film Tuesday, is based loosely on Salama's own life as a former orthodox Muslim whose obsession with the flamboyant pop star caused him a crisis of faith.
It takes audiences back to the day the one-gloved performer died, June 25, 2009, and shows them how it sent a former devotee into a tailspin.
Jackson's death stirs childhood memories in the film's lead character, Khaled (Ahmed Malek), making him question what it means to be a man and be true to oneself.
"This film is a turning of the page on so many obstacles in the road [in my life] in terms of identity and faith crises," Salama said ahead of the film's Friday premiere at the Toronto film festival (TIFF).
Although many older conservatives and orthodox Muslims in the Middle East may have despised Jackson during his lifetime as "a freak, the guy who changed his color," Salama said he was wonderstruck when he first listened to his music.
"He was a poor black kid who grew up to be one of the most famous people in the world," he said. "His music crossed borders."
The father of a friend who introduced him to Jackson's music, Salama recalled, "gave [the friend] hell for liking Michael Jackson ... My own father was also not happy about me listening to Michael Jackson."
Ignoring their disapproval, Salama said he read and learned everything he could find about Jackson -- who influenced his clothes, his hair, and his world outlook (as suggested by song lyrics). Those are Salama's feet doing the moonwalk in the film.
Later, in his 20s, however, "I became religious," he said, "and overwhelmed by the guilt of not being good enough in the eyes of God."
The young Khaled worships Jackson, from his Thriller-era haircut and moonwalk to his Bad tour bondage pants. He is eventually steered away from the Man in the Mirror by a macho father who fears his son becoming soft, and later by religious mentors who encourage him to reject pop culture and to preach to "those who dance to the music of the devil."
An older Khaled (Ahmad El-Fishawi) is torn up inside. "I don't want to be a hypocrite," he says in the film.
"For Muslims," Salama explains, "to not walk the talk is a sin."
The writer-director said he hoped to reveal devout Muslims' inner struggle, rather than criticize them as pretenders.
The character Khaled, he notes, "wants to be devoted but he just can't" because of his love of Jackson's music.
How does one juggle these contradictions?
"I don't have an answer for that," Salama admits. "That's the question that the film asks, more than answers. I think we just need to accept our contradictions and all ourselves."
Thirty-five years after Jackson released "Thriller," which went on to become the world's bestselling album of all time, the Toronto Film Festival is also screening a digitally re-mastered version of John Landis' original music video in 3D, as well as the documentary "The Making of Michael Jackson's Thriller."
Landis himself oversaw the frame-by-frame restoration of the short film, with its legendary zombie dance sequence, and featuring Jackson as a walking dead and a werewolf.
The original "Making Of" was conceived to help fund the production of "Thriller" and was shot simultaneously and debuted alongside the music video in 1983.
It took audiences behind the scenes, showing them the movie-making process from makeup to choreography to filming at a time when such glimpses were rare.
"I can't tell you how many filmmakers have told me that 'The Making of Thriller' was their first window into how movies are made," Landis said, "and inspired them to become filmmakers themselves."
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