“We can’t judge on the basis of religion or colour, or even nationality”
Industry Report: Europe and the Rest of the World
Ahmed El Fishawy • Actor
At Cairo, Cineuropa got the chance to meet Ahmed El Fishawy, the lead actor from Sheikh Jackson, who spoke about radicalisation and mutual understanding
Ahmed El Fishawy recently performed in Sheikh Jackson, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been selected as the Egyptian entry for Best Foreign-language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. In it, El Fishawy plays a conservative imam undergoing a crisis of conscience after Michael Jackson’s death. We chatted to the actor at the Cairo Film Festival.
Cineuropa: How can culture and cinema build a bridge between different people and civilisations? Do you think that your film, Sheikh Jackson, reflects this idea?
Ahmed El Fishawy: Yes, of course – but not only my films; I think that all films around the world are a bridge to enable us to get to know each other. We can know and understand other people’s way of life, how they act, how they feel, and the things that make them laugh and cry through a film shot in a specific country. Every movie has the power to do this.
You are now 35. When you were in your twenties, you were a Salafist. Can you tell us anything about this experience?
It was not a long period – about nine months. I could have become a drug lord, but I became a fundamentalist because I thought this was the way to bring peace. It was hard; I used to wear the uniform, I used to attend classes in the mosques, and I really believed that that was the way to paradise. Of course, it is not about how you dress or what you look like – this is what I realise now.
What did your parents say about that period?
My parents were scared that I would turn into a terrorist, of course. My uncle was part of a big terrorist organisation in the 1980s; they called people infidels, they carried out terrorist attacks, and then they left the country. He played a big role in that organisation, and so my parents were scared at the idea that I could turn out like my uncle, my dad’s brother.
Why did you agree to play this role?
I usually take on roles that are daring. When other actors are too scared to play a role, I accept it.
When you make a film in Egypt, you have to pass through the censorship bureau. There is a scene in the movie where Sheikh Jackson appears in the mosque and people start dancing. I read that, in fact, it is not a mosque. So did they accept the script?
Yes, and they also accepted that scene. And I’ll tell you something, and this is something that not everyone knows: the prophet and his companions used to party and dance in mosques. Therefore, it is not forbidden in religion. In the film, it was the imam imagining it. The people were not really there; they weren’t even dancing. It was all in his head.
What do you think of the reaction to this movie? How did the Egyptian audiences receive it?
The Egyptian audiences liked the film. Sheikh Jackson is not a commercial movie, by the way; it’s a film that is more independent, and festivals love it. It performed very well at the box office, considering it is a non-commercial film.
The Cairo Film Festival presented The Preacher, about an imam who becomes a popular TV celebrity, issuing fatwas that deviate from the traditional religious rhetoric. This is another way of talking about the figure of the imam, which was previously considered untouchable. Do you think that the public and the state are ready for this kind of portrayal?
We are presenting imams in a human way on screen. Usually, when you see an imam or when you see a man with a beard, you think he is a terrorist about to bomb you. At the end of the day, some people are imams – some people are strictly religious, but they don’t want to hurt anyone, and they also need their freedom and they have their own beliefs. This is a film about a human who is trying to find himself – a universal theme.
Do you think that this film can be a way for people to understand each other?
Yes; I think that when people watch this film abroad, they will be satisfied and they will clap their hands with all their heart. Indeed, they will understand that even if my character is an imam, he has feelings, he has a heart and he can feel hurt; he can cry. People look at him as a human being, not only as a stereotype. We can’t judge people based on how they look; I can’t call someone with a beard a terrorist. And we can’t judge on the basis of religion or colour, or even nationality.
Are you aware of what Salafists thought of the film in Egypt?
The Salafists in Egypt do not go to the theatre – it is forbidden for them. They don’t watch any kind of film.
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