Egyptian director Amr Salama has a bent for tackling hot-button issues that spring forth from his personal experiences. His most recent drama, “Sheikh Jackson,” is about a conservative Muslim cleric tormented by a burning passion for Michael Jackson. Now Salama is developing “Iraqi Sniper,” a riposte to “American Sniper” that’s intended to lend perspective to Mustafa, the Iraqi insurgent in Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning movie. Salama spoke to Variety during the inaugural edition of the El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt, where “Sheikh Jackson” was the opener following a Toronto bow.
Simply put, it sounds like with “Iraqi Sniper” you want to tell another side of the “American Sniper” story. Is that right?
I really hope from the bottom of my heart that this will be my next movie, but it’s actually one of several projects I have in the pipeline. And I want to make it very clear that it’s not an anti-“American Sniper” film….It’s more about humanizing the “other.” It’s a film about the dilemma over what constitutes terrorism. Who is a freedom fighter, and who is a victim? It’s about bridges between different cultures and seeing what’s behind what you see on the news. In other words, it’s an anti-war, pro-humanity film.
What was your reaction to “American Sniper”?
Clint Eastwood used to be one of my favorite directors. What I respected the most in his career is when he made “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Flags of Our Fathers” to tell that [World War II] story from the different [Japanese and American] perspectives. I was kind of hoping or expecting that this would also be the case [in “American Sniper]” with Arabs. Of course, he does not have to make two versions of every film he does. But in this case, where you have a very controversial war and the most controversial political event in this new century, I thought that deserved another angle.
So how did it make you feel?
At the end of the film I had very mixed feelings: Should I feel sorry for [American sniper] Chris Kyle, or should I feel sorry for Iraq? This question really intrigued me. Actually, the film was more politically correct than the book [Kyle’s autobiography]. The book was all about these “savages” he was killing in Iraq. So I thought that I wanted to respond to that, because I’m sure almost every one [of those “savages”] has a son who loves him and a wife who wants him to live. I thought: “I want to provide a human look at these people.” I’m a big fan of a book titled “The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil,” by Philip Lombardo, because it talks about how de-humanizing the “other” is the worst thing you can do to humanity.
As I understand it, Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, who humanized suicide bombers in “Paradise Now,” will produce “Iraqi Sniper.”
In the past two years Hany has become a father figure to me…I met him last year in L.A. and he told me, “I really want us to work together, but I don’t know how”….I told him about this idea that I had. He said: “I want to help you with it.”
And Egyptian actor Sammy Sheik, who plays the Iraqi sniper in Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” is lined up to star in the title role?
Yes, he’s attached. Sammy loved the idea. Interestingly, he told me that the initial script for “American Sniper” was for a much longer film about the two snipers: the American one and the Iraqi one.
You like to tackle hot-button topics in your films. ’Asmaa’ was about an Egyptian woman contending with social stigma due to her being HIV-positive; in “Excuse My French,” a Christian kid enrolled in an Islamic public school finds himself forced to conceal his religious identity. How did you come up with the idea of Salafi Islam and Michael Jackson intersecting in “Sheikh Jackson”?
It sprung forth from my personal history….I was very religious when I was younger, in college, and before that I was a huge Michael Jackson fan. So initially it was really like a memoir. But then I decided to find a theme for the film….After the Egyptian uprising, the whole country, including me, plunged into a crisis. Ironically, Michael Jackson is a global pop culture idol, and at the same time he’s one of the idols that have been part of an identity crisis that I went through. But I didn’t want to make another one of those self-indulgent films that nobody cares about….I wanted to make an entertaining film for everyone in the world, make it universal. That was the challenge.
Did you conceive “Sheikh Jackson” as a bridge between cultures, both within your country and outside Egypt?
They say creativity comes before any type of conceptual or thematic analysis. When I was writing this film, by the sixth or seventh draft I was sitting with [producer] Mohamed Hefzy [head of Egyptian indie shingle Film Clinic], and he said: ‘I’ve now discovered the common themes in your films: They are about humanizing folks that we cast judgment on, about fitting in, about divisive issues. I had never thought of that….While I was doing this film I discovered who I am. I discovered that somehow I’m [always] doing films about humanizing the other.