A biopic with no leading man?

How to make a film about Muhammad without depicting him

A biopic with no leading man?Hollywood filmmakers know all about dealing with recalcitrant stars. But making a movie about a figure who can’t be depicted for fear of enraging his 1.5 billion followers is a whole other challenge.

Earlier this month, Barrie Osborne, the American producer of such blockbusters as The Matrix and The< Lord of the Rings, announced plans for an “epic” retelling of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The US$150-million biopic, scheduled to begin production in early 2011, is being financed by the Al Hashemi Group, a Qatari construction and petrochemical conglomerate. Their aims sound laudable: “Hopefully this film can bridge some cultural misunderstandings,” Osborne, reached in San Francisco, told Maclean’s. “Muhammed was a great man, he made incredible changes to society.” However, even aside from Islamic traditions that forbid visual or aural representations of the Prophet or members of his immediate family (a prohibition driven home by the worldwide rioting that greeted a Danish newspaper’s publication of a series of Muhammad cartoons in 2005), the project seems a fair bit more fraught than the usual studio fare.

Take Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, the popular Qatar-based Sunni cleric named as the chief researcher and spiritual consultant for the project. The head of the Association of Muslim Scholars and star of Al Jazeera television has been banned from entering the U.K. and the United States for his controversial views on homosexuality, questioning of the Holocaust, and defence of Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. “I consider this type of martyrdom operation as an indication of the justice of Allah Almighty,” he told the BBC in 2004. “Allah is just—through his infinite wisdom he has given the weak what the strong do not possess and that is the ability to turn their bodies into bombs like the Palestinians do.”

Then there is the twisted tale of previous Muhammad film projects. In 1976, Syrian-American director and producer Moustapha Akkad, best known as the driving force behind the Halloween horror series, brought the Arabic-language Mohammed, Messenger of God to the big screen (released in English in 1977 as The Message). Starring Anthony Quinn as Hamza ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib, Muhammad’s uncle, and his Zorba the Greek co-star Irene Pappas as Hind, the wife of the leader of Mecca, the movie was scrupulous about religious sensitivities. It tells the Prophet’s story through the eyes of peripheral observers. Muhammad is never seen or heard—although some scenes were filmed from his point of view—but his presence is signalled by soft organ music. Initially greeted with suspicion by many religious leaders, the film went on to be a popular blockbuster in the Arab world. But despite garnering an Oscar nomination for best score (it lost to John Williams’ Star Wars), the English version was a commercial flop. And in the West, at least, the movie is best remembered for spawning a bizarre hostage-taking in Washington.

In March 1977, 12 armed Hanafi Muslims—a breakaway sect of the black-power Nation of Islam—took over three buildings, including the headquarters of B’nai B’rith and the Washington District Council chambers, holding 149 people at gunpoint for three days. Two men—a local radio reporter and a police officer—died. And then councilman Marion Barry (later to gain infamy as the city’s crack-smoking mayor) was wounded in the chest by a ricocheting shotgun pellet. Among the Hanafis’ several demands was the destruction of all copies of the “sacrilegious” Mohammed, Messenger of God.

Akkad, the director, was later killed along with his daughter Rima and 55 others, in a three-pronged al-Qaeda suicide bombing attack against luxury hotels in Amman, Jordan, in the fall of 2005. The 75-year-old filmmaker had been making trips to the region for two years, seeking financial backing for a movie about Saladin, the great Arab general who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. “Saladin exactly portrays Islam. Right now, Islam is portrayed as a terrorist religion. Because a few terrorists are Muslims, the whole religion has that image,” Akkad explained in an interview about the project. “If there ever was a religious war full of terror, it was the Crusades.”

In October 2008, producer Oscar Zoghbi, a former colleague of Akkad’s, announced plans to remake The Message, with the help of Dubai-based financiers. It’s not clear, however, if that movie is beyond the planning stages. But Osborne is convinced audiences around the world are ready for another look at Muhammed. “It’s an extremely sensitive subject and a gigantic challenge,” he says. “But anytime you tell a story you take certain risks. To me this is important as a member of the global community.”