The (Reluctant) Infidel – Why Cinema and Religion Need to Coexist

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By E. Nina Rothe

I first watched The Infidel at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival in NYC, and immediately knew the film would win audiences the world over. The story, written by David Baddiel, is one that poses questions about our identity, how important is religion as a part of that, and whether our beliefs are stronger if we are born into a faith or convert. Personally, I always enjoy a healthy dose of learning along with my entertainment and the film left me thinking about its theme and story – about a casual British Muslim discovering he’s really adopted, and that his biological parents were Jewish – for months after I watched it. It didn’t hurt that the outrageously funny Omid Djalili played the lead Mahmud, opposite an equally wonderful Richard Schiff.

What I did not expect was to hear the film’s name pop up again two years later, this time embroiled in a controversy over its distribution in the Middle East. Sure, I’ve heard of the issues surrounding the screening of Persepolis in Tunisia and imagined that The Stoning of Soraya M. was not welcomed in cinemas throughout the Gulf states, but The Infidel is such a wonderfully funny film, and the message, well, how do I put this… mild! Then why was it banned across the Middle East?

I went straight to the source – Gianluca Chakra of Front Row Filmed Entertainment and asked him about the film’s distribution in the region. He explained that the problems started a couple of months ago, when they placed trailers for The Infidel on new DVD releases – the kind we often skim over when trying to access the movie’s main menu. He then received a request from the Ministry of Information and Culture – which handles film censorship in the UAE – to immediately remove the trailers. In Chakra’s home country of Lebanon – he’s of Italian and Lebanese descent – the film was promptly banned too, which of course meant that everyone who wanted to watch it could,  just not legally do so.

Art censorship around the world is not unusual. In the Middle East it can get even more tricky. If we go back to Persepolis, the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi was banned in Gulf countries. But the film from the book was eventually shown – under the patronage of the Abu Dhabi Cultural Heritage – at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and went on to win the ‘Audience Choice Award’ there. Even Nadine Labaki’s latest Where Do We Go Now? – a film that promotes religious tolerance and embracing our neighbours’ beliefs wholeheartedly – was subjected to censorship, when the producers were asked to remove a sound bite of goats bleating into a mosque’s loudspeaker, in order to secure screenings in the UAE.

Understandably, a cinema industry in the MENA region is very new, and as such, it must be allowed to go through the same growing pains which filmmakers in the US, Italy and France have since outgrown. Yet, there is an additional challenge faced by countries in the Middle East, and that is the inseparability between state and faith. Chakra explained that while in the US, for example, the MPAA has very specific guidelines for handing out ratings, in the Arab world a rating often depends on individual censors, and what their personal definition of “offensive” happens to be.

Of course, we all know that films which create a buzz will be watched by an audience “by any means necessary” and that equation undeniably includes the dreaded “p” word – PIRACY – which makes even seasoned filmmakers lose their cool. Chakra confirmed that by now, The Infidel has probably been watched by nearly everyone who wanted to see it in the UAE, through illegal means, making his company’s ownership rights utterly obsolete. But watching a film online, or on a pirated DVD, guarantees that everyone involved is a loser: the filmmakers and distributors, and the audiences, who will be unable to enjoy the true magic of cinema, drudging instead through bad soundtracks and even worse images.

With such great resources like financing and young talent galore at their disposal, several countries in the Arab world (like the UAE and Qatar) are slated to become the next big players in the world’s film market. Challenged with less numerous audiences than those in India and the US, they are still managing to create works of art that are helping to change the world for the better, through the educational power of cinema. It’s time to take that one last, hard step to fully unleash this potential: Accept that simply talking about Islam does not make something “Haraam”, and that, perhaps, a wholesome religious belief should also include a healthy dose of debate.

E. Nina Rothe is a writer and avid world traveler who was born in Florence, Italy and is currently based in New York City, US. She has contributed articles on world cinema and culture to various media outlets including Bespoke, Chic Today, elan, EGO, Tehelka and AVS TV. She has also been an on-air reporter covering film festivals including Toronto, New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, and Doha TFF, plus NY Fashion Week, all the while interviewing Bollywood and Hollywood personalities. Nina currently writes for the Huffington Post US and Tatler Homes Singapore. Her passion is cinema with a conscience. Check out her personal website

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