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“I feel that saying that some people lack humanity is not right”

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Industry Report: Europe and the rest of the world

Amr Salama • Director

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- At the Cairo Film Festival, Cineuropa talked to Amr Salama, the director of Sheikh Jackson, which premiered at Toronto and is the Egyptian entry for Best Foreign-language Film at the Oscars

Amr Salama  • Director

Cineuropa met up with Amr Salama, the director of Sheikh Jackson, at the Cairo Film Festival. Representing the younger generation of Egyptian auteurs, he tells us about the relationship between Arab countries and the West, and the way in which cinema and art in general can combat extremism.

Cineuropa: How do you enter the minds of others? For example, in Sheikh Jackson, you tried to enter the mind of a Salafist. The film follows Khaled, an Islamic cleric obsessed with Michael Jackson as a teenager. After hearing the news of his idol’s death in 2009, his grief causes him to undergo an identity crisis that threatens his faith.
Amr Salama:
That was the easiest part. When I was a kid, I was raised in Saudi Arabia as a Salafist; I knew what being a Salafist meant, and I had many friends. Not to the extent you see in the film, but at the same time, I have seen all of that. I just remembered how it was, what we believed in and what our struggles were. Everything was forbidden, like music, and you try to isolate yourself and live in your own present. Moreover, I interviewed many people and I read many books.

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Was it easy to communicate these feelings to the actors?
The lead actor had the same experience as me; he lived and witnessed the life of the Salafists. At least 30% of my generation went through it.

You’ve said that you try to put yourself in other people’s shoes, and this has prompted criticism because you were accused of showing the humanity of evil people…
There is humanity in everyone, even in a serial killer. I feel that saying that some people lack humanity is not right. I know there are people with no empathy, but everyone has a human side. My purpose is to tell stories that humanise more than dehumanise. I referred to the book The Lucifer Effect, about how people turn evil, which says that every war or civil war started because someone dehumanised someone else. This is how World War II happened and how the Nazis killed all those Jews. “The other” wasn’t considered as human. Therefore, I think I have to do the opposite: I have to humanise the other, whoever this other is. In Egypt, nobody would ever humanise Salafists or homosexuals, just like a conservative woman would never humanise a prostitute, who in turn would never humanise a religious figure. It’s one of the big issues in our society, all around the world.

Do you think that cinema has the power to change minds?
Of course; it can change minds and hearts, and give a new perspective on life, besides an insight into others. This is one of the biggest values of cinema. I like films like Lawrence of Arabia because it is about others.

What about your new project, about an Iraqi sniper?
I remember when I watched American Sniper, and I felt confused. It made me want to read the book that the film is based on. I felt a little bit irritated about how Arabs are portrayed in the film, even if in the book it was even worse. I started studying the character of the villain in American Sniper, and I found many stories that were maybe unknown but extremely interesting. But it is not simply an action film; it’s about a guy who decides to become a firefighter and a jihadist. The intriguing question for me is what is the difference between resistance and insurgency? What makes you resolve to kill people?

Did the film you made change you as a person?
Of course; every film has changed me a great deal. Asmaa changed the way I look at others. I had never had a Christian friend until I was 23 or 24. Sheikh Jackson was a film about identity and how you can accept different contradictions within yourself. That was exactly my issue while I was making the film. People say, “If you have a problem with your identity, you should raise some kids,” and this is what happens to me when I make my films – I complete something that is missing in me.

How was Sheikh Jackson received by the public and the critics in Egypt?
I think that 78% of the reaction has been good. The film irritated fewer people than expected – it has matched my expectations exactly. A few people got offended and wanted to sue us.

You have said that this is a film that “brings civilisation”. Do you think this is how it is perceived?
I think so, somehow. Women with HIV are being treated differently now, and Christian kids are seen differently in class, so I guess it is changing society.

What is your wish, besides winning the Oscar, of course? Do you think that your film will be more widely exported and viewed in Europe just because it carries a message to the countries of the West?
Of course. When I make a film, I hope that everybody in the world will see it from every country and from different cultures. The best thing for a filmmaker is feeling that his or her film can transcend language and religion, for example. This is also my dream.

What would be your response if I told you that your style is very close to Western filmmaking? There is a lot of action, and maybe this is the reason why people living in the West like your films.
I have never thought about it. I am self-taught – I learned about filmmaking by reading all the American books about scriptwriting and directing. So you are right: I am strongly influenced by Western models. 

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