Bilal navigates tricky issues of religion and violence

Bilal navigates tricky issues of religion and violence December 19, 2015


A few weeks ago I mentioned that an animated film about one of the earliest Muslim converts, Bilal, was going to premiere at a film festival in Qatar. And now it has. Here are a few of the articles that have been written about that premiere.

First, Variety ran an interview with director Ayman Jamal. An excerpt:

Making a movie that is rooted in the history of the birth of Islam can be a challenge for many reasons. One is different ways it can be perceived by the Shia and Sunni Muslims. Another is the connotations it can take on in the West, especially now after the Paris tragedy. What’s your take on these possible issues?

It’s not a religious movie. You won’t find a single word in it that refers to any religion. It’s the journey of Bilal who was a slave and became a master. He refused to worship these idols used by traders to fool poor people and make more money for themselves. Bilal was not convinced about these idols, he felt that there was only one God who created all of us equally. And I think that one God who created all of us equally is the same for all religions. If you are inspired by the movie “Ghandi,” does that mean it’s promoting Buddhism?

It’s a pretty violent movie, if your target audience are kids. Are you concerned about that aspect in positioning the film?

Tell me what movie isn’t violent? “Superman,” “Spider-Man,” “Hunger Games”? Violence is in a lot of movies. And it has nothing to do with religion. It’s just violence. That’s what sells video games. It’s what (young people) want. Our message is actually the opposite. In the end, when Bilal has the opportunity for revenge, he chooses not to take it. The violence is just part of the drama and the action. Also, it’s a PG-13 movie anyway. We never saw it as a kids movie. And that was done intentionally, because we wanted to have a larger audience.

One interesting detail in that last paragraph is the bit where Amaal says Bilal “has the opportunity for revenge” but “chooses not to take it.” I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t know how this plays out specifically there, but according to Wikipedia, at least, the historical Bilal may indeed have taken revenge against someone:

In the battle [of Badr], Umayyah [ibn Khalaf, the former master of Bilal] was captured by his old friend Abdul Rahman ibn Awf. He was killed by a group of Muslims led by his former slave Bilal (who was a victim of his earlier torture), in spite of Abdul Rahman’s protestations and his attempt to shield Umayyah with his own body. One of Umayyah’s sons was also killed at Badr, defending his father.

Meanwhile, Deborah Young reviewed the film for The Hollywood Reporter:

Based on the life of the historical figure Bilal Ibn Rabah, an African slave who became one of the early followers of the Prophet Muhammad, Bilal is a grand-scale, fast-paced animated adaptation that is both empowering and inspiring in its call for social justice and equality. The biggest animated feature ever made in the Middle East, its exceptional production values and fetching, lifelike characters sculpted in computer 3D are likely to enthrall Muslim audiences throughout the Arab world. Though the amount of violence in the story, which concludes with a bloody battle between the forces of good and evil, seems way too much for younger viewers, its PG-13 rating should open the road for teen and young-adult audiences, particularly role-playing gamers interested in drama and action. . . .

Certainly, this is no Disney cartoon, though it does have distant echoes of Ben-Hur and Spartacus. It recounts the historical struggle of Muhammad’s followers to vanquish the corrupt older religion and replace it with a just one. Its powerful message against anger and vengeance in favor of racial and class equality is particularly timely in this dark year of terrorist attacks, and it could be added incentive for festivals to screen a major work of Middle East animation. . . .

Jay Weissberg at Variety also reviewed the film, and noted the violence:

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 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 Mohammed, 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. . . .

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. . . .

I must say, I sympathize with any filmmaker who has to deal with the violent elements in one’s religious heritage while making a film that is at least partially trying to pass that heritage on to younger viewers. Just look, for example, at how The Prince of Egypt had to tread very carefully when depicting the plague of the firstborn, and how it completely omits the violence that the Hebrews committed against each other — sometimes at Moses’ command — after they arrived at Mount Sinai.

Also: Two of the three articles above claim that the film is rated PG-13, but I can find no trace of any rating for the film at the MPAA’s official website or at the IMDb. I don’t doubt that the filmmakers are aiming for a PG-13 rating, though.

Here is the trailer for Bilal that I included in my earlier post on the film:

And here is a second trailer, which went online just last week:

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