x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

An international epic production

Following the successful conclusion of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival comes an announcement that the life of the Prophet Mohammed is heading for the silver screen.

The newly established Qatari media company Alnoor Holdings is to make its cinematic debut with a film of the life of the Prophet Mohammed. Last month the company, chaired by Ahmed al Hashemi, launched with the announcement of a $200 million (Dh740m) film fund. "The film has been brewing for a while in my chairman's mind," Raja Sharif, Alnoor's vice president said. "It's something he'd always wanted to do. And it was just a matter of him finding the right time and being, from a business perspective, in the right place with his company."

Barrie Osborne, best known for his work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Matrix and Apocalypse Now, has signed up to produce the $150 million (Dh555m) feature. Explaining the appointment, Sharif said: "Barrie's done some of my favourite films, which is always a consideration... He's also a very down-to-earth, thoughtful kind of producer. And because we're tackling quite a complex and very important story, I thought he fitted in quite well."

Osborne told Reuters the English-language biopic would be "an international epic production aimed at bridging cultures". "The film will educate people about the true meaning of Islam," he said. Filming is expected to begin in the first quarter of 2011, though no director or cast-members have yet been named. Alnoor is in discussions with a number of studios, distributors and agencies to help bring the story to cinemas.

"Because of the international nature of this film, and again because of the complexity of the story, we'll be looking to make sure that we take our time, pace ourselves, and ensure that the development stage is done to a very high standard," Sharif said. The task is likely to be made more challenging by the Islamic prohibition on depictions of the Prophet or his family. To ensure a properly respectful treatment, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the Egyptian scholar and host of Al Jazeera's religious programme Ash-Shariah wal-Hayat (Sharia and Life), is to oversee the project.

"[He's] the most well-known scholar in the Middle East if not the world," said Sharif. "That, I hope, will also rest people's minds in terms of ensuring we don't offend." As far as the most obvious sticking-point in the project is concerned, Sharif assured The National that the Prophet won't appear on screen. How the film will work around this difficulty has yet to be decided, however. "We're just weighing up the options," he said. "Narrative works well in certain types of stories. In others it doesn't. These options have to be left open because of course we can't show depictions of the Prophet himself."

An earlier attempt to celebrate the life of the Prophet Mohammed in film met a violent reception. In 1976, the Arab-American director Moustapha Akkad made The Message, a cinematic exploration of the early years of Islam. The film starred Anthony Quinn as a follower of the Prophet. In accordance with Islamic requirements, the Prophet never appeared in the picture. His presence was indicated by a recurring organ theme and some scenes were presented as if from his perspective. In America, however, it was rumoured that Quinn was portraying the Prophet Mohammed himself. Twelve members of the American radical group Black Muslims took 149 people hostage in Washington DC. They threatened to kill their prisoners unless they got a guarantee "from the whole world" that the film would never be shown. A police officer and a journalist died in the ensuing siege.

Sharif thinks the story of The Message will help Alnoor's film. "The Message makes it easier for us," he said. "There were endless rumours about what that film was going to do and the problems surrounding it. "However, I do believe that after people saw it, they did, on the whole, tend to see it didn't breach Islamic guidance... That in itself should help people be a little calmer." Alnoor are not the only ones who are undeterred by the experience of the earlier picture. Last October The Message's producer, Oscar Zoghbi, announced his intention to remake the film under the new title The Messenger of Peace.

"We have only the utmost respect for [the original film] but technology in cinema has advanced since the 1970s," Zoghbi said in a statement. "This latest project will employ modern film techniques in its renewal of the first film's core messages." After more than 30 years without a filmic treatment of the life of the Prophet, there's now a race for the box office.