The Message, Moustapha Akkad's epic history of the birth of Islam finally opened in UAE cinemas on Thursday night, following a 42-year ban that spanned most of the Middle East.
The momentous occasion was certainly one for the region’s cinematic history books, although audiences at Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates midnight screening seemed largely oblivious to the historic occasion they were taking part in. For one, Lebanese marketing executive Samer, it wasn’t the historic lifting of a long-term ban that attracted him to the movie, but the wonders of modern technology – the film has been meticulously restored into an ultra-HD 4K format by Akkad’s son, film producer Malek Akkad.
“I didn’t even know it was banned,” said Samer. “I’ve watched it on TV many times, and it’s a great film with some amazing shots of the desert, so I just came down to see how it looked in 4k on the big screen. It was impressive visually.”
Another viewer, Ali, who was at Saturday morning’s Yas Mall screening in Abu Dhabi, was aware of the controversy surrounding the film on its initial release in 1976, when pressure from religious groups who felt the subject matter was too inflammatory to depict on screen led to the film’s ban, and hoped that the belated release was a sign of changing times in the region.
“I didn’t know there was an official ban, but I remember it not being in cinemas in Egypt, where I was at the time,” he said. “I really don’t understand why. It’s been shown on TV many times, but I’m pleased if there was a ban and it’s gone now. There’s nothing wrong with the film. It doesn’t depict any religious figures. I don’t know why they’d do that. Hopefully after the Arab Spring and everything else that’s happened, this is a sign of the progress we’re making.”
Mo, who watched the film in Dubai Mall, said that he had seen the English version of the movie many times as a youngster on a VHS tape, as well as on TV screenings, but this was the first time he had watched the Arabic version of the movie – the film was shot with two entirely different casts in Arabic and English as Akkad had hoped to tell his story as widely as possible.
For Mo, both versions of the film contained a similar flaw. “I was interested to watch the Arabic version as I’d never seen it,” he said. “The English version, when I saw it as a kid, never really spoke to me. You’d have to ask someone more religiously educated than me about the details, but I just felt that because we never actually see the people the film is really about, we never really get a sense of them either. I don’t know, maybe if you’re going to make a film about people you can’t actually show, you just shouldn’t make the film? I’m not really qualified to comment, but the same was true for me of the Arabic version here.”
The Message may have cleared the regulatory hurdles that plagued it in 1976, but it still faced plenty of challenges on its eventual release in 2018. The film came out on the night of Eid, with numerous alternatives available for families looking for a celebratory night out, and also the opening night of the hugely popular FIFA World Cup, and the small audiences at the screenings we attended suggest that the hectic schedule of an Eid/World Cup combo may have taken its toll on attendances. The film's distributor, Front Row Entertainment, was overall pleased with the film's performance however, and particularly the fact that it had screened in Saudi cinemas at the very beginning of the country's cinematic revolution.
The film does remain banned in Kuwait, however, following a last minute decision by the Ministry of Information to block its release. Front Row confirmed that it has resubmitted the film to Kuwaiti authorities, and hopes that now it is screening across the rest of the Middle East, Kuwait may reverse its decision so that audiences can see this vital part of the region’s cinematic history – perhaps the grandest film project ever taken in the region, by a director from the region, telling the story of the region.