TIFF Review: Culture Clashes get Personal in ‘Wajib’ and ‘Sheikh Jackson’

In a pair of TIFF films set in the Arab world, the tensions between Eastern and Western culture take on personal implications. Both are Oscar submissions for their respective countries, with “Wajib” and “Sheikh Jackson” representing Palestine and Egypt respectively. They also share similarities in their focus on father-son relationships, through which they discuss cultural differences surrounding religion, ancient traditions, and individual freedom.

The concept of “agree to disagree” comes to mind in “Wajib”, the Palestine Oscar submission. Throughout our daily lives, we often find ourselves in interactions requiring such a truce. Perhaps none more so than in arguments with our own parents. In “Wajib“, such a situation repeatedly arises between a father-son pair as they are forced to work together in this gentle drama from Annemarie Jacir.

“Wajib” refers to the Palestinian custom of hand-delivering wedding invitations to expected guests. For schoolteacher Abu Shadi and his architect son Shadi, that task belongs to them, in preparation for the wedding of their daughter/sister Amal. But the pair isn’t exactly close, as Shadi left home years prior to living a more modern Western life in Italy. Out of mutual love for Amal however, he reluctantly returns to Palestine to take part in the Wajib tradition. But a culture clash between father-son soon ensues, as they are forced to confront the issues that caused their estrangement.

If you’ve seen enough movies, you probably know where this is going. As they go from door to door, the two men argue about nearly everything related to the wedding. Even without hearing them speak, you can already tell that they are polar opposites. With his tailored blazer, crisp patterned shirt and red pants, Shadi is the model of European chic. Meanwhile, Abu Shadi is more unassuming in his more loose-fitting everyday wear.

Their obviously contrasting tastes deliver a few amusing moments in the narrative. Notably, their difference of opinion also extends to the wedding plans. Whether it’s the music, the decorations or even who deserves to be invited, they struggle to find common ground. On that latter note, the film manages to deftly incorporate the obligatory reference to the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Ultimately, the most important guest is the mother of the bride, whose backstory directly relates to the tension between the men. Indeed, she represents the central struggle between individuality and tradition at the heart of the film. And to Jacir’s credit, the screenplay allows the viewer to empathize with both sides.

While the question of whether the mother will attend or not provides intrigue, the film misses out on some other opportunities to captivate the audience. Namely, the character development inherent in the Wajib premise is sorely lacking. Each person they visit is as forgettable as the next.

In the end, it all boils down to a rather simple father-son drama. And it’s hardly a spoiler to learn that underneath it all, these men share a loving bond (believably conveyed by real-life father-son acting duo Mohammad and Saleh Bakri). For some, this heartwarming message might be satisfying enough. But with the cultural specificity of its title, one would have expected “Wajib” to deliver something altogether more challenging and unique.

GRADE: (★★½)

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While “Wajib” examines East-West tensions and the generation gap through a straightforward father-son drama, “Sheikh Jackson” applies more metaphorical ambitions to similar themes. Indeed, the ideological differences between this Egyptian father-son pair involve the influence of another man entirely – Michael Jackson. As the King of Pop comes between them, this heartfelt story explores masculinity, religion, fandom and the importance of being true to yourself.

Directed by Amr Salama, “Sheikh Jackson” begins on a morbid note, as the news of Michael Jackson’s death permeates the airwaves. A man named Khaled (wonderfully portrayed by Ahmad El-Fishawi) is particularly shaken, even accidentally driving his car into a tree out of shock. We soon learn that the musical icon played a major role in his childhood, having such an impact on his life that Khaled adopted the nickname “Jackson”. But those days are in the past, as he now dedicates his life to serving Allah as an Imam. The memories of Michael Jackson and the liberated happiness he represents still linger, however, prompting a severe crisis of faith and identity.

Split between flashbacks and the present day, “Sheikh Jackson” presents a fascinating portrait of its main character. On the first impression, Khaled appears to be a devout Muslim whose strict teachings also include the way he runs his family (which includes his wife and daughter). Initially, his only concern seems to be a sudden inability to cry during prayer, which he attributes to a breakdown in his faith. But the true cracks in his trained facade begin to show when a Beyonce music video inadvertently triggers his suppressed love of Michael Jackson.

More importantly, the video also brings back the painful memories that led him down a more pious path. As the screenplay replays the tumultuous events of his past life, the true Khaled emerges. The flashbacks reveal a vibrant personality who loved to dance, but whose zest for life began to dim after the loss of a beloved family member and the torment of his brutish father.

And it’s that contentious father-son relationship that separates “Sheikh Jackson” from the typical generation gap films from the Arab world. More than just a clash between Eastern and Western cultures, the film also doubles metaphorically as a gay coming out narrative. Indeed, Khaled’s dad ridicules him for emulating the “transvestite” Michael Jackson.

And the script brilliantly underscores Khaled’s continued eccentricities even after he is “saved” in his adult years. For example, Khaled walks around with a device that tallies his good deeds and bad deeds with the press of a button. Furthermore, Salama stunningly visualizes Khaled’s internal angst and anguish through frequent daydreams and nightmares involving Michael Jackson.

Indeed, as Salama’s trippy directorial flourishes so, he also seems to celebrate the innovation that Michael Jackson presents. Though “Sheikh Jackson” may not quite reach that level of success, it’s a valuable piece of work aesthetically and thematically. What could have been just a quirky tale of a boy’s pop star obsession ultimately becomes an amazingly profound tale of self-love above all else.

GRADE: (★★★)