Monday, 2 November 2009

When is a biopic not a biopic?

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Perhaps one answer to the question posed above could be "when it doesn't depict its own subject". I'm sure you can imagine what I'm talking about - just picture Walk the Line, but without all the bits (i.e. most of the film) where Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash, or Raging Bull minus Robert De Niro's devastating portrayal of the boxer Jake LaMotta. The reason I say this is the Guardian are reporting that a big-budget Hollywood biopic of the Prophet Muhammad is set to go into production in 2011, produced by Barrie Osborne, who was behind The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

According to Reuters, who broke the story over the weekend, Alnoor Holdings, a Qatari media company, are behind the planned English-language production, which will have a budget of $150 million. Osborne told Reuters that the film would be an "international epic production aimed at bridging cultures" which would "educate people about the true meaning of Islam".

Of course, what you're all wondering at this point is how on earth a biopic of Muhammad will make it past the planning stage, given what tends to happen whenever someone tries to depict the Islamic prophet. The answer, as I implied above, is that in this biopic of Muhammad, Muhammad himself will not be depicted at all.

So, is a biopic still a biopic if it doesn't feature the person who it's supposed to be a biopic of? I think that's an issue we can thrash out in the comments - let me know what you think.

That aside, one thing this production will surely achieve is to further solidify the culture of self-censorship that has surrounded Western depictions of Islam, and depictions of Muhammad in particular, ever since the Danish cartoons controversy in 2005. As it happens, in the new November/December issue of New Humanist we have the journalist and author Sherry Jones writing about precisely this topic – since it's so relevant here, I thought I'd put it online as a preview of the new issue. As I'm sure many of you will know, Sherry was on the receiving end of this kind of censorship last year when Random House pulled out of publishing her novel The Jewel of Medina, in which the central character is Aisha, the third wife of Muhammad. The novel has never been published in this country, after the home of Martin Rynja, whose publishing firm Gibson Square was going to release it, was firebombed by Muslim fanatics (they were jailed earlier this year).

In her piece for New Humanist, Sherry warns how self-censorship, in relation to her own work and subsequent cases (including Yale University Press's decision to publish Jytte Klausen's book about the cartoons crisis without including the cartoons), harms not just the authors themselves, but the very principle of free expression.

Do share your views by leaving a comment on this post.


Anonymous said...

I thought you weren't allowed to put an image of Mo up for anyone to see.
It'd be a rubbish film without the main character in vision.

Paul said...

Whether you want to call it a biopic or not, it will be interesting to see how they manage to make a film in which the main character is absent. The more I think about it, the less convinced I am about the feasibility of this film.

I think the censorship issue is more interesting, though, and more depressing. Regardless of the intentions of the people behind this film, it's a near certainty that someone will decide to take offence at it. It's also a safe prediction that whoever decides to take offence will be pandered to rather than being told to grow up.

Anonymous said...

You never see Niles's wife in episodes of Fraser.

Sherry Jones said...

We watched "The Messenger" in my History of Islam class at UM and Muhammad isn't shown at all. It goes something like this: Actors address the camera directly, "What do you think, Prophet?" Bells chime a la Tinkerbell, and the questioner nods. "Good idea, Prophet!" he says. I believe Ali is treated in the same manner.

But you know, Jytte Klausen maintains that depicting the Prophet Muhammad has never been blasphemous before. She says depictions of him are for sale in Middle Eastern markets today. It was not the depictions but the nature of them in the Jyllands-Posten cartoons that offended people who actually saw them (most protesters had not seen the drawings). Heretofore noncontroversial illustrations of Muhammad were also deleted from her book by Yale Press.

Richard Eis said...

Sounds more like using religion for a cheap gimmick to me.

Per said...

I too was disappointed when Samuel Beckett so blatantly left out the main character from Waiting for Godot. Clearly, this marks the play as Not A Real Play About People Called Godot.

Seriously though. On the one hand, it's sad a film with pictures of Mohammed in it is off limits. That said, there's no reason not to try and make a good film without him in it, even if it happens to be about him. For reference, Dantes Divine Comedy contains no single explicit reference to the Vatican, while still being highly critical of the Pope at the time (and also good enough to keep people reading it for 700-odd years).

1minionsopinion said...

Weren't movie makers back in the day petrified of showing Christ on screen and what he might look like? Isn't it in Ben Hur where you just see the crowds, or the back of a guy who is meant to represent Christ without ever showing his face? They could do the same in this case, if they could find any actor bold and daring enough to be Mohammad's backside.

Interesting about Jewel of Medina. I didn't realize how limited a publication that wound up being. I'd heard about it, but when my library here in Canada wound up with four copies of it anyway, I figured whatever problem there was had been solved.

davidmww said...

This film is great news. Yes, it will be an overly deferential whitewash - but it will be criticised for that, and in making this criticism all the bits of Mo's life they left out will be brought to light.

The end result will be millions more people - both infidel and Muslim - being made aware of the subject's little foibles.

That's a good thing.