LOS ANGELES, Dec 11, (Agencies): Dubai’s first animated feature puts top-class artwork to use in a story designed to preach about the inclusive, non-discriminatory aspects of the Muslim faith to younger audiences. Loosely based on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, a companion of the Prophet (PBUH) who was born a slave and became the first muezzin (the man who calls the faithful to prayer), “Bilal” avoids any immediate controversy by only obliquely mentioning Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), instead emphasizing the socially just origins of the religion. However, the decision to accentuate warrior elements, down to the song over the end credits, perhaps isn’t quite the right tactic in these Islamophobic times, when misunderstanding and misinterpretation are rife.
Among many faithful, “Bilal” will likely be a welcome counterbalance to the disturbingly negative depiction of Muslims in the West, and is the sort of animated feature to which some parents will happily take the kids, and which might earn a place on their DVD shelves. Others will be unsettled by the amount of violence (granted, it was a violent time), and getting non-Muslims to buy tickets will be almost impossible, given the film’s well-intentioned yet rather blatant propaganda elements, and the cast’s marginal name recognition won’t be enough to draw them in. Even so, the potential audience remains huge.
Opening titles push both the social justice side — “humanity’s struggle for freedom and equality” — along with the “inspired by a true story” element, though as usual with such things, inspiration can be quite a leap from history. In the late sixth century, a loving Abyssinian mother is slaughtered by evil marauders as her young children Bilal (voiced by Andre Robinson) and Ghufaira watch from a closet. The invaders take the kids to Makkah, where they’re enslaved by wicked capitalist/idol seller Umayya (Ian McShane), whose son Safwan (Sage Ryan) is even nastier than his father.
Despite lessons learned at his mother’s knee, about how living without the interior chains of anger, vengeance and superstition makes a man great, the adult Bilal (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) grows accustomed to the hopelessness of captivity. Then he meets Hamza (Dave B. Mitchell), who tells him no one is born a slave. Inspired by these words, Bilal is able to regain a sense of dignity, and as the teachings of equality, non-discrimination and monotheism sink in, he joins forces with the Prophet’s followers to battle against the wicked ones.
And battle they do, in bloody fights with galloping warriors riding horses with red eyes. It’s true that the early years of Islam were full of tribal and religious warfare, so one could argue that the pic’s general atmosphere has a generic ring of truth. Yet for a children’s film (it premiered at Doha’s Ajyal Youth Film Fest), the amount of slaying sits uncomfortably with the underlying message of tolerance.
The dialogue is very clear-cut, devoid of all contractions so that people speak in unnatural ways, though perhaps it makes the conversations clearer, especially to audiences whose native language might not be English. More problematic are the never-ending platitudes, all tied to spreading the message of equality. The scripters were surely thinking of “12 Years a Slave” when writing some of the lines, aiming for that nobility-under-servitude vibe with even more one-dimensional villains (well, this is animation). The anti-capitalist message adds an interesting twist, depicting idolatrous Makkah’s merchants as money-grasping slave owners whose only real god is Mammon.
Visuals are extremely well designed, so highly sculptural that certain figures (Bilal and family in particular) often look as if the animators put real actors through their paces and morphed them into illustrations. The evocation of pre-Islamic Makkah, with the Kaaba topped by a statue of a ram-horned god, is nicely done, though some hardliners might not be so happy. Atli Orvarsson’s musical compositions are overloaded with sweeping themes and inevitable, very tiresome soaring vocalizations that preface every emotional moment. Still, it’s more explicable than the closing song, glorifying warriors of God.
DUBAI: The Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) is proud to confirm that its Enjaaz programme has supported 15 remarkable films that are now screening at the 12th Festival until Dec 16. The Enjaaz programme provides post-production support to help up-and-coming regional talent finalise their works and bring their projects to the silver screen.
Since the inaugural year of the initiative in 2007, the production and post-production support programme, which is part of the Dubai Film Market at DIFF, has become a pillar for the growth of cinema in the region. The captivating line up being showcased this year is:
* The Idol by Hany Abu-Assad
* Skin by Afraa Batous
* 3000 Nights by Mai Masri
* 23 Kilometres by Noura Kevorkian
* The Curve by Rifqi Assaf
* Going to Heaven by Saeed Salmeen Al Murry
* Borders of Heaven by Fares Naanaa
* Go Home by Jihane Chouaib
* We Have Never Been Kids by Mahmood Soliman
* El Clasico by Halkawt Mustafa
* Weight of The Shadow by Hakim Belabbes
* Al Medina by Omar Sharqawi
* The Boss by Rizgar Husen
* Smell of Bread by Manal Ali Bin Amro
* Mariam by Faiza Ambah
Masoud Amralla Al Ali, DIFFs Artistic Director, said: DIFFs Enjaaz programme has been providing crucial support to the regional film industry for almost a decade. It is the proud supporter of many award-winning films that have been showcased at DIFF, and we are honoured to have been a part of the journey of those films as they flourish on a regional and global stage.
The 12th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival will run from Dec 9-16, 2015. The DIFF box office is now open at www.dubaifilmfest.com. Additional information is also available through the Festival’s dedicated customer care number, 363 FILM (3456).
The Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) is the leading film festival in the region. Since its inception in 2004, the festival has served as an influential platform for Arab filmmakers and talent at an international level, by spearheading the cinema movement in the region. The 12th edition of DIFF will take place from Dec 9-16, 2015.