This week, Californians were at the center of the latest episode in the uncomfortable and seemingly endless debate about depictions of the prophet Mohammed. The question of how to depict the prophet and his followers — if you are to depict them at all — has been argued back and forth amongst Muslims for centuries. More recently, a number of incidents involving western depictions of the Prophet has injected this debate with questions of the boundaries between freedom of speech and hate speech. We asked these questions following the American publication of “The Satanic Verses” and again during the cartoon controversy of the mid ’00s.
But the debate had added significance for Californians this week. California — rather appropriately, as the global capital of cinema — rendered unto the world a short film that many followers of Mohammed find offensive not only for its depiction of the prophet, but for the degrading nature in which he is portrayed.
The film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” has sparked riots in several countries, one of which claimed the life of popular US diplomat and UC Berkeley alumnus Christopher Stevens. He is the first US diplomat to be killed on a posting since 1979.
Interestingly, one of the actresses in the film alleges she was misled into thinking she was starring in an “Historical Arabian Desert Film.” Certain lines in the film were allegedly dubbed to change an actor’s name from “George” to “Mohammed.”
In 2009, “Lord of the Rings” Producer Barrie Osborne announced plans to make a multimillion dollar Hollywood epic about the life of the prophet Mohammed once he had finished “Kingdom Come,” a film about the life of Christ. The plan was to sidestep the issue of depicting Mohammed by not actually showing him on screen. Unsurprisingly, the $150 million film never got off the ground. It did, however, provide the impetus for this article from the Atlantic which broadly outlines some of the more practical concerns with why Hollywood has been reluctant to depict the Prophet in cinema.
And in case you thought the debate over the depiction of idols was confined to Islam, here’s an article written about 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ” in which a Christian debates whether Gibson’s film contravenes the Book of Exodus’ prohibition of “graven images.”
Of course, what distinguishes “Passion” from “Innocence” is Mel Gibson’s own Catholicism. “Passion” was idolatrous in the sense that Gibson was really making a no-holds-barred recruitment video for his own faith.
Perhaps a better comparison would be the debate that arose in the 1970s around a cheaply made, satirical epic about the life of Christ, “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” Now, of course, the film is rightly recognized as a milestone in eloquent religious satire. At the time, however, it drew criticism for its depiction of Christ and was banned in several countries.
This film, innocuous though it may seem, still causes controversy. The film’s director, Terry Jones, even wonders whether he could make “The Life of Brian” in today’s environment, which he sees as more religiously fraught than the 1970s.
Thomas Coughlan is the lead film critic. Contact Thomas at [email protected]
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