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'Muhammad' Movie Sets Out Religious Hurdles for Makers

Animated feature being shown in the Mideast is a collaboration between a U.S. director and an Arab businessman, who call it a 'bridge maker.'

November 03, 2002|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

MUSCAT, Oman — As Ahmed bin Khalifan and his two sons hurried toward the Al Shatti Plaza movie complex, he knew exactly what he wanted to see.

Not "Bad Company" with Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins. "Too vulgar, too American," said the 35-year-old plumbing contractor. And not "K-19: The Widowmaker," with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. "The reviews were bad," he said.

The Khalifans, arriving in a late-model Lexus, were headed for the animated feature "Muhammad: The Last Prophet," which is attracting respectable, if not blockbuster, audiences throughout the Middle East since opening Oct. 16.

"This is family entertainment," said Khalifan with a nod as his sons, ages 9 and 11, headed for the snack bar.

That the 90-minute movie was even made is a testament to the collaboration between a former Disney animation director and a Middle Eastern businessman eager to break into the movie business.

"When we began, people were very skeptical but I knew there would be an audience if we did things right," said Muwaffak Harithy, whose other credits include working in his family's construction, maintenance, real estate and portfolio management interests.

"This movie is a bridge maker, a way to show Islam the way it truly is," said Harithy, chairman of Syria-based Badr Intl. "The journey has been the reward."

A half-dozen years and upward of $10 million in the making, the film had to fight objections by Islamic clerics concerned about how their holy story of Muhammad and the Koran would be handled by a moviemaking technique associated with Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny.

For openers, director and producer Richard Rich -- selected by Harithy because of his animation experience and track record of successful religious films -- faced an obstacle that few moviemakers encounter: His hero could not appear on screen.

Islamic law considers it a sin to display images of Muhammad, the 7th century prophet who spoke out against corrupt political and military leaders in Mecca, was driven into exile, and later led a battle to liberate the holy city from nonbelievers.

"We knew from day one that our main character could not be seen and could not be heard," Rich said. "Our goal was to be true to Islam, not to give our version or interpretation of it."

Muhammad is symbolized by blinding light. His words are never heard, but his message is relayed by a loyal follower who is persecuted.

Rich and other employees of his Rich-Crest Animation in Burbank videotaped themselves acting each scene. The tape would then be sent over the Internet to animators in South Korea, a process known as "smacking." Nearly 196,000 drawings were needed before "Muhammad" was finished.

The ghost of the 1976 "The Message," another biopic of the prophet, starring Anthony Quinn (as Muhammad's uncle, Hamza) hung over the production. The Quinn movie drew protests from Islamic fundamentalists incensed over a rumor that Charlton Heston or Peter O'Toole would play Muhammad.

The Moroccan government withdrew permission for filming, and the company took refuge in Libya under the sponsorship of Moammar Kadafi, which only increased the controversy. The effort was a financial flop.

To avoid the same fate, "Muhammad: The Last Prophet" omitted not just the prophet but also his uncle.

And the film was submitted to Shiite clerics in Lebanon and scholars at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most respected theological center in the Sunni Muslim world. With minor changes, both gave their stamp of approval.

Still, the chief censor in Egypt, invited to a sneak preview, was incensed at scenes showing Muslims smashing idols that looked like Pharaonic statues. The scenes were cut, and the movie opened as scheduled.

In Oman, a traditional Islamic society where Western influence is not as apparent as in more tourist-dependent Persian Gulf countries, "Muhammad" was approved by the state censor without a hitch. The Al Shatti Plaza complex is part of an outdoor mall popular with the middle and upper-middle classes.

Rich worked 14 years in the Disney animation department before leaving in the mid-1980s to start his own company.

At Disney, he directed "The Fox and the Hound" and "The Black Cauldron." For his own firm, he has directed "The Swan Princess," "The King and I," and "The Trumpet of the Swan," as well as more than 50 videos from stories taken from scriptures and world history, including the "Animated Heroes Series" that aired on HBO.

For "Muhammad," Rich wanted an epic feel, something that "captures the moment."

The colors are vivid, the movement lifelike and captivating, and even a viewer who doesn't speak Arabic is drawn into the drama of the battle for Mecca. Composer William Kidd, a Hollywood veteran, did the musical score.

Initial plans were for "Muhammad" to be shown in the U.S. with English subtitles.

Movie publicist Don Barrett pitched distributors with the idea that, more than ever, the U.S. needs a movie that can help Americans understand the founding of Islam. The reaction, he said, was not encouraging.

"9/11 has complicated the problem [of getting the movie shown] in the U.S.," Barrett said.

In Oman, and eight other countries in the region, there is no such problem. The audience this night included families, younger teenagers and even a German couple on holiday.

"Now my sons will have more respect for Muhammad the prophet because he has his own movie," explained Khalifan as he left the theater.

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