When films anticipate the debate in the Islamic world and the West

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Never ask more of a film than it can give. If, until recently, we looked to Western films in the hope of finding even indirect aids to understanding something about Islam, things are different nowadays. In these atrocious times, European cinema has only one issue to investigate: our own identity, rather than that of the people we are (not) welcoming. Our relationship with the Muslim immigrants is only one consequence of this. And, sure enough, Aki Kaurismäki (who won the Silver Bear at Berlin with The Other Side of Hope) has a dream: “Convince even only three people that we are all human beings.” At first sight, therefore, the film’s protagonist is Khaled, the Syrian refugee fleeing the war. The boy seeks asylum in Helsinki and searches for his sister Miriam, still stuck in the no-man’s-land of the Hungarian border, but his application is turned down. He hides in the courtyard of a restaurant called “the Golden Pint”, which the owner has won playing poker after fleeing an alcoholic wife and work as a tie salesman. There they are, the real protagonists: the man without a past, his dive and the embarrassing trio of a cook and two waiters, who keep him company. Needless to say, after an initial discomfort, Khaled is absolutely fine: an exile amongst exiles, in the Finland that was once the “Welcoming country” and is now only a string of police stations, squalid bistros and fearful streets. In short, what the humanist Kaurismäki has to offer are his questions as a European in crisis. And they are very different from the questions that the Islamic countries’ cinema is asking itself.


Something is changing. And not just because of the so-called Arab revolutions in 2011. If, until the other day, it could normally be taken for granted that it was hard, if not impossible, to draw on an author’s direct experience to understand what an Egyptian thought about Egypt or an Iranian about Iran, the situation seems inverted nowadays. Two Danish directors gave the camera to a boy from Mali to tell of the life, desires and disappointments experienced by migrants in Europe. And the resulting film, Those Who Jump, won the Ecumenical Jury prize at Berlin. Something similar is happening in Italy, where the producer entrusted Il silenzio – a short film on the reception migrants meet with in Italian hospitals – to two Iranian directors, Ali Asgari and Farnoosh Samadi. So perhaps, partly in the light of this inversion, we can begin asking of the Islamic countries’ films some questions that are fundamental for Europeans, held in check as they are by the threat of terrorism. For example, who carries authority in Islam and to whom are believers answerable? And who knows whether we might not discover that these questions are equally important for Muslim viewers; those who, at the end of the day – as throughout the rest of the world – determine a film’s success, in defiance of the protests issuing from the imam of the day. And we could also discover that no system is monolithic, that something can always slip through the censor’s net. This seems to be the case with the Egyptian film, The Preacher (Mawlana). Directed by Magdi Ahmed Ali, it tells the tale of a scholar’s journey from prayers in the mosque to television fame during the years of ex-president Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The film uses an explicit language to show the difficulty of inverting the religious rhetoric of a world marked both by its mingling with secular power and by the temptation to fundamentalism. The Egyptian government appoints the sheikh as head of the prestigious al-Azhar, for centuries one of the temples of Islamic knowledge. The film describes this reality by contrasting two atmospheres: the illuminated screen on which the preacher recites his mordant answers to the public’s questions and the dark space behind him, the scene of the real struggle for power, a power that gradually tightens its suffocating hold on the man. “I cannot tell the whole truth but I’m doing my best to talk about nothing,” says sheikh Hatem, as he tries to break down the wall of fear and falsehood he finds himself facing.


It’s a technique well known to many authors operating under authoritarian regimes: talking without saying anything and enveloping the things that really matter in a silence that is often more deafening than the loudest shouting. The expert in this genre is the Iranian, Asghar Farhadi, who, with his latest film, The Salesman, earned himself controversy and staggering takings at home plus an Oscar – the West’s umpteenth tribute – abroad. Silence reigns in this film where everyone is trying to manage a constantly erupting disorder, starting with a block of flats threatened by a monstrous bulldozer. Which is paradoxical, given that the protagonists, actors in an amateur company that is preparing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, do nothing but talk, both on stage and at home. The silence of the woman who has been attacked in the new flat (we know neither how nor by whom), the silence of the humiliated husband who harbours suspicions and thoughts of revenge and the silence of the neighbours who pretend to know nothing. As for authority, this remains in the background, being represented by a hostile State capable only of censorship and by a bizarre religion reduced to the pathetic red raincoat that, worn on stage, alludes to the nudity the American text is talking about and provokes only hysterical laughter.


Let us not underestimate laughter, however: sometimes one can learn more from a comedy than from a theology seminar. Directed in 2008 by Ramy Imam, Hassan and Marcus (Hasan wa-Morqos) is a good example. Long before the various revolutions, this Egyptian film was tackling the subject of fundamentalism through a play on misunderstandings in which Omar Sharif is a devout Muslim and the actor Adel Imam a Coptic Christian, both of whom are threatened by extremists. Forced to enter a protection programme, they exchange identities: the Muslim pretends to be a Christian and vice versa, with results that can easily be imagined. Having become a reputedly wise Muslim, the Orthodox priest Boulos (Paul) receives an invitation from the imam in the village where he is in hiding. The entr’acte in the mosque, with the questions from the faithful and his embarrassed answers, is iconic. Question: “There’s a man who’s married to a fierce woman and he wants to teach her discipline. What can he do?” Answer from the (real) imam: “He should admonish her.” “She doesn’t listen.” “He should refuse to share her bed.” “She is actually happier.” “He should beat her.” “She is very strong and beats him with a slipper.” At this point, Boulos, the fake imam, intervenes: “Listen, my son, certain women don’t need religious rules so much as prison.” General exultation; everyone shouts “Allahu Akbar!” and they carry him shoulder-high. Of course, that anyone can proclaim himself or be proclaimed imam is no novelty. Islam does not envisage a single authority. However, the film highlights how those who lead prayer exert a real power over the community that entrusts itself to them, whether the issue is the length of a beard or fasting, extra-conjugal relations or politics, children or even cleaning one’s teeth. The moral? Perhaps one can laugh at an imam but one had better not make him angry.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Emma Neri, “If a Comedy Explains More than a Theological Conference Does”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp.140-142.

Online version:
Emma Neri, “If a Comedy Explains More than a Theological Conference Does”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2017, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/if-comedy-explains-more-than-theological-conference.