IN THE post-Sept. 11 world, images and impressions of Islam in the Western media have often been synonymous with extremism. To temper this, the UCLA Film and Television Archive is offering "Visualizing the Sacred: Islam on Film," an attempt to present a more inclusive look at the religion. "Obviously Islam and images of Islam in the media are a big issue these days," notes programmer Paul Malcolm. "It's just been overwhelmed by the focus on terrorism and radicalism. . . . These films show the other side of Islam and the Muslim experience."
The program, which runs this weekend through June 7 at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, was originally conceived as a showcase for films created after 2001. But Malcolm says he soon realized "that the 9/11 marker was maybe too limiting in terms of getting the kinds of films that I thought would be great for audiences to see."
One of those films is "The Message," Moustapha Akkad's 1976 epic on the birth of Islam that kicks off the series at 7:30 p.m. Friday. "We have the term 'biblical epic,' but this is a Koranic epic," explains Malcolm. Films such as "The Message" and the animated "Muhammad: The Last Prophet" (2 p.m. May 24), he adds, "are very similar to the Hollywood biblical epics of the '50s and '60s; they're part of that genre and they draw on that genre."
Both movies also tackle the challenge of portraying the prophet Muhammad when the religion forbids representations (the subject of May 17's panel discussion). "What's fascinating is that they found cinematic ways to respect religious tradition and custom while telling engaging and entertaining stories," says Malcolm. "They use . . . other ways of really expressing the powerful spiritual presence of Muhammad without actually depicting him on screen."
"Visualizing the Sacred" highlights more intimate portrayals of Muslims as well. "Of Love and Eggs" (7:30 p.m. May 30) focuses on members of a tightknit Indonesian community as they raise money to buy a new cupola for their mosque. "I want to show Islam is like all humanity; it's about everyday life with smile, joke, sharing, etc.," e-mails director Garin Nugroho from Jakarta. "This film is also trying to say that the important value of Islam must reflect [the religion] in everyday life, like value sharing, tolerance, pluralism, dialogue and anti-violence."
"Even in a specific Islamic experience, there are a lot of universal messages," says Malcolm. For instance, 2004's "The Grand Voyage" (7:30 p.m. May 17) is about a modern French-Moroccan who grudgingly accompanies his devout, traditional father to Mecca. "The son gradually [comes] to understand his father more as they get closer to this spiritual center."
All seven films in the series present Islam from an individual perspective, which Malcolm says he hopes will give viewers a broader understanding of the religion. "They are showing a side of Islam that we don't usually see in the mainstream media," he says, "which is average ordinary Muslims, and the challenges and the joys that they experience through their faith, and as a result of their faith."
VISUALIZING THE SACRED: ISLAM ON FILM
WHERE: Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood
WHEN: Starts 7:30 p.m. Fri.; runs through June 7