Producer of “Blasphemous” Film ‘Lady of Heaven’ Says Protests Brought “Huge Publicity,” Discusses On-Screen Portrayals of Prophet Muhammad

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An under-the-radar historical feature became headline news in the U.K. this week after it was pulled from two major cinemas chains. Cineworld, followed by Showcase, canceled all screenings of The Lady in Heaven after protests by Muslim groups took place outside cinemas in several British cities. In a statement, Cineworld said that its decision was made to “ensure the safety of our staff and customers.”

Written by Islamic scholar and cleric Sheikh Al-Habib, and from first-time feature director Eli King, The Lady of Heaven — which already had a five-week theatrical run in the U.S. without any upset — looks to tell the story of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, Lady Fatima, shifting the drama from contemporary war-torn Iraq to the 7th century.

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Protestors accused the film of “blasphemy,” claiming that it inaccurately and negatively depicts some of Islam’s most important figures, while an online petition, signed by more than 120,000 people, described it as “pure, unadulterated sectarian filth.”

According to The Lady in Heaven’s executive producer Malik Shlibak — who also heads up the Islamic educational non-profit Rafida Foundation and is director of the film’s production company Enlightened Kingdom — the headlines have led to a surge in interest in the feature, which he asserts was made by a team including both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.

However, he says there’s a very negative side to the protests and what that means for freedom of speech in the U.K., and he claims that he — and the film’s writer — have been receiving death threats for years because of their work. While Shlibak notes that much of the anger is over the on-screen portrayal of holy figures, he also says that films such as The Lady in Heaven are gradually pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable.

In a conversation with THR, he also discusses the potential for an actor to one day actually play Muhammad: “Part of the future is stepping into the unknown.”

What are your thoughts about the protests that have erupted over The Lady in Heaven?

From a production standpoint, we’re really happy about it. The protestors have given us huge publicity, so thanks very much. As you can see, the film is all over the news networks, and it wouldn’t have happened without their help. It’s basically a dream come true for any film. That’s the positive side, but obviously there’s a very grim, negative side about what it means to be British and the topic of freedom of speech. It’s negative because of what we’ve seen, but it’s also sparked a lot of conversation about this topic, which is quite useful and helpful. But it is disappointing to see people who claim to be British trying to censor other people from their freedom to express themselves. And their underpinning reason for this it because they feel offended, that’s as far as it goes. The question I ask them is, if I’m quite offended by a lot of your beliefs and a lot of things you say, does that mean we can censor you? It’s an absurd way to tackle any issue.

On the publicity side, have you seen an uptick in interest from audiences?

Oh, yeah. I’m hearing from people that they can’t get a ticket for three days now, because it’s fully booked. They’ve really packed out cinemas for us. If you go online and sift through Twitter and YouTube, there are comments from people who hadn’t heard of the film before or from people saying they want to see it because of the protests.

I understand that, as well as the protests, you’ve also had death threats against you?

Yeah, that’s nothing new. We’ve had that for the last five years – and against team members and against Sheikh Yasser al-Habib (the Islamic scholar and historian who wrote The Lady in Heaven). At the protests, they were shouting death to Sheikh al-Habib.

Is this purely because of the film?

Yes and no. Partly that and partly because I’m generally involved in work pertaining to this history and pertaining to Lady Fatima. So it’s all the same topics that this group of protestors has decided they have the power to tell everyone that you cannot discuss these things. These protestors are very publicly pro Taliban and pro ISIS, there are posters of ISIS members on the protests. So it’s strange that their main claim is that if you talk about these things it will lead to sectarian tension, so you shouldn’t speak about it. Ironically enough, this sectarian tension is coming from there. So the real way forward is for us to overcome sectarian tension is for us to be mature and say that we are tolerant and acceptable of different viewpoints, and we are allowed to discuss them, and we’ll discuss them peacefully even if we strongly, passionately disagree with each other.

So would you say that it sets a dangerous precedent that cinemas have bowed to this pressure and pulled the film?

Yeah, exactly. That’s one of the points that we saw being expressed all over the internet, which is if they feel that they have this authority in their hands now, what next? If today is The Lady in Heaven, tomorrow it could be something much more dear to you. We can’t give them this authority to any degree.

What’s the background to The Lady in Heaven?

Sheikh al-Habib has been working in this field for decades. He’s an academic and historian and cleric. His life’s work is educating regarding these types of things, including the story of Lady Fatima. Likewise, other team members, like myself as chairman of the Rafida Foundation (an Islamic educational organization), we do this type of educational work. So it’s just the natural progression of our efforts, because that’s part of the film, to give this story to the world about Lady Fatima. We believe she’s the number one example of how to tackle bigotry and oppression and corruption, and through her stance she made history.

Any film or TV project that depicts the Prophet Muhammad or his followers sparks some sort of outrage. Was there a sense that this film was always getting an extreme response, so it’s not so much of a shock?

Any film that tackles religion is going to have a reaction similar to this. The Passion of the Christ and The Message are two that come to mind. And The Life of Brian. So it was definitely expected, although I don’t think it should deter anyone from making these films, because it’s part of the package. Also, the more that this happens, eventually this kind of outrage will fizzle out. It is fizzling out and maybe this the last ditch effort. And I think we’re taking that step to create more space for people to creatively express themselves without fear. In The Message, they didn’t portray the Prophet or his voice, but it caused a huge outrage and was considered blasphemy at the time. But then it became more normal, and we’ve seen a plethora of different projects since then. So we’re definitely widening that scope.

I understand you went to great lengths to avoid depicting Muhammed or Fatima in the film, using visual effects instead.

We did, but according to these protestors, even showing him via CGI, or by any means is blasphemy. These radical groups have effectively bullied the Western world into believing that there’s a blanket fatwa in Islam saying you cannot depict the Prophet. But it’s a huge lie, because the Muslim world is very varied, there are different views and there are many groups that allow the depiction of the Prophet, so long as it’s done a certain way. From our side specifically, it’s perfectly fine. And the biggest Shi’a cleric in the world permits it, as long as you maintain their honor and their dignity. And we went ahead with that. We’re very aware of these groups that strongly oppose it and view it as blasphemy, but what can we do? The ones who believe that should not portray him in their projects and the ones who do should, and we should move on.

Do you think we’ll reach a point where we’ll see an actor actually play Muhammed, and we’ll be able to see his face and hear his voice?

I think that’s pushing it. As far as you go at the moment, there are theatrical performances in the Middle East with holy figures, but the person who takes on that role should be someone who’s seen as very pious, someone who the community can be assured is someone who has a certain level of religiosity and dignity. Because the fear would be if they do things in public after their theatrical performance that are considered indecent, that would be seen as some type of insult. Also, these theatrical actors still cover their faces, that’s as far as it goes. But if it will happen, who knows. The future is the future, and part of the future is stepping into the unknown. From our side, there is room to portray the prophet, you just need to refer to whichever scholar you adhere to.

What’s next for The Lady in Heaven?

There are other regions coming. We’re pushing for VOD. And I can say with confidence after this publicity stunt from the radical protestors that the biggest VODs are knocking on our door. We want to get this in every corner of the globe, even if there are corners without much commercial return

You already released it theatrically in the U.S. Were there any protests?

Not even a sneeze!

Do you think there’s any likelihood of it being released in the Middle East?

Not in certain places that are sealed up from any variety of opinion, like Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. But other places I can see a possibility for it to push through. Maybe not immediately, maybe give it some time. But we’re trying our best as it definitely needs to be in that region.

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