Religions, violence and terrorism at the cinema

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Timbuktu.jpgWho is to blame when we speak about terrorism and violence? Islam or Muslims? Religion or culture? The Qur’an or its interpretation? This is such a tough, inescapable question that censorship seems the most practical solution. Remove the films that deal with this topic and perhaps the rather unpleasant reality they depict or, increasingly often, predict will also disappear. France adopted such an approach in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, banning screenings of the film Timbuktu, by the Mauritanian Sissako. It did the same thing a year later – a few months ago – with the Bataclan attack. This time, the film to be removed was Made in France, by the Franco-Algerian director Nicolas Boukhrief. If considered in the light of the attacks, the poster stuck on subway walls was truly horrible, with a Kalashnikov over the Eiffel Tower and the words “The threat comes from within.” The film deals with the attraction that Islamic fundamentalism has for younger generations – a topic that remains taboo in Europe – and will only be available as video-on-demand. Yet, perhaps out of a sense of guilt, France’s representative at the Oscars is Mustang, a film shot in Turkey by a Turkish director, Deniz Gamze Erguven, about the unbearable situation of women in Islamic society.

It is worth pondering this inability of western culture to explore and judge reality. On this front, a short film entitled The Brand New Testament, which came out at the same time as the attacks in Belgium, is of great interest. It was shot by Jaco Van Dormael in the very streets of Molenbeek where the terrorists lived and tells the story of an evil, slovenly god who, since the Crusades, incites men to fight each other “in his name.” Well, religions are the problem, all of them. And this says plenty about the way the Intelligentsia think. Still, there is a more urgent theme to consider. It is the judgement that Muslim directors make through the subject and the form of the narrative. Indeed, these young creators are often abler than westerners to ask questions and suggests answers, even if they are awkward. Deniz Gamze Erguven is such a case, with her first work about women. Mustang is the story of five orphaned sisters who live in a village with their grandmother and uncle. They are beautiful, carefree and seemingly happy, a sort of magical story in which the bright reality of the opening scenes quickly transforms into an all-too-real nightmare. At the beginning, there is an innocent game among friends on the last day of school that results in the girls initially being locked away and then, almost imperceptibly, in family violence and forced marriages. “The small scandal that the girls cause is something that I experienced personally,” explained the director. Yet, “Turkish society is very diverse. There are extremely liberal and modern women and other segments of the population that are still subject to traditional, conservative rules.”

Dieux Existe.jpgPerhaps the most uneasy touches are the clinic where the “certificates of virginity” are provided, the burglar bars on the windows, the shapeless outfits, the planned marriages, and the imam’s preaching about chastity, which the uncle imposes and then jumps in bed with his nieces. So, who is to blame? Religion? Tradition? Ignorance? Actress Serra Yilmaz, “the face” of director Ferzan Özpetek, warned, “What happens in the provinces also happens in Istanbul. It is a city with tentacles that reach far, a place that exploded to become a monster. In the districts on the outskirts, life can be even harder.” Obviously, a film is not sufficient. A new beginning is necessary, like the escape of the two youngest girls on the day the elder is supposed to get married. This rebirth is the colour of dawn breaking on the Bosphorus, the open door of a friend, and the warm embrace of the teacher.

The legal and practical state in which women live, the conception of marriage, the family and education, and the rights granted and denied provide an effective barometer for understanding how and to what degree, in the Islamic world, religion is distinct from culture and how it interacts/clashes with modernity. We need to get used to deciphering certain symbolic elements, such as the veil, because they explain so much that words cannot. I was able to watch Iran’s Oscar entry About Elly, by Asghar Farhadi. In it, the women only show their heads in that no-man’s land – the setting for the narrative – between the home and the outside world. By contrast, David Guggenheim’s documentary He named me Malala uses minimal symbols and plenty of facts. In it, this girl from Pakistan who was injured by the Taliban because she wanted to study and who won the Nobel Peace Prize, tells of her commitment to education for women, with her father. It only takes a few images to describe how life changes for a teacher and his family: the black flag flying over the town when Islamic State arrives, cars burning, bonfires of books, computers and CDs, loudspeakers over which the names of sinners are announced each evening, the public executions... “Like many women from Swat, my mother used to cover her face,” explained Malala who now lives in Birmingham. “Not for religion, but for tradition. Now...she only covers her hair. But covering my face was something that... made me feel like I was just hiding my identity, who I was.” On the organisation that calls itself Islamic State, Malala has clear ideas. It has never been about faith, but about power. “Taliban are a small group of people. They think that God is a tiny, little, conservative being... They are the enemies of Islam.” Still, an anecdote her father tells suggests some of the problems faced by women in Pakistan existed before. “A few days after [Malala was born], my cousin brought the family tree. It traced back for 300 years. No woman was mentioned. Only men were there. I took the pen, drew a line... and wrote ‘Malala’.” The last testimony is Mehdi Meskar, a 20-year old Moroccan actor who grew up in Treviso – Italy. He plays the imam in the comedy Pizza and Dates, directed by the Iranian Kurd Fariborz Kamkari, who also created The Flowers of Kirkuk. The protagonist, convert Vendramin (played by Italian actor Battiston), goes in search of his lost identity in this story that laughs at stereotypes without falling into the banal. Obviously, of the two, he is the fundamentalist.

Pitza e datteri.jpg“The key to this film,” explains Meskar, who describes himself as a non-practising Muslim, “is the existence of a lay Muslim culture unafraid to laugh at itself.” In the funniest scene in the film, Venice’s haggard Islamic community discusses how to take back the mosque from Zara, a Turkish hairdresser who has turned the building into a salon. “I’ve got it,” says the young imam from the desert. “I don’t know what the word is in Italian, but it is very entertaining. Everyone is there, women, children...” “The market?” suggests Vendramin. The imam pages through the Qur’an. “The Book says we put woman in a hole and bring stones for everyone.” “And what do we do with the stones?” ask the others. “Throw,” he replies. “But she’ll’s stoning!” exclaims the horrified community president. “Yes, that’s what it’s called!” “But, it’s fantastic!” shouts the enthusiastic convert Battiston. It is modernity, beauty.

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, “The West Censors While Muslim Directors Explore”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 140-142.

Online version:
Emma Neri, “The West Censors While Muslim Directors Explore”, Oasis [online], published on 26th July 2016, URL: