The animated film Bilal is being “viewed by many to be the birth of global film making in the Middle East,” according to a contributor to the Saudi Gazette in “Saudi animated movie ‘Bilal’ to be screened at Cannes.” Though a film for children, the Bilal movie, produced by UAE and Saudi Arabian company Barajoun Entertainment and an Oscar hopeful in the animated category, presents a tale familiar to viewers in the Middle East or who practice Islam, but not as familiar to Westerners.
Loosely based on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed, the Bilal movie focuses on diversity and the inclusive side of Islam. It also, by necessity for an animated film, creates images of Bilal, who is known as a Sahaba (or companion), which is viewed by some Muslims as forbidden. Whether looking for research paper topics in Middle Eastern Studies, Islam, or animation, there are many opportunities for discussion in Bilal.
Who was Bilal ibn Rabah?
Bilal was an Ethiopian and a former slave who converted to Islam and became one of Mohammed’s most trusted companions. He was the first muezzin, or caller to prayer, in Islamic history. According to contributors to Tadias Magazine, in the article, “New Animation Movie About Bilal the Ethiopian: Islam’s First Muezzin,” Bilal “is often referred to by scholars as proof that Islam was originally established on the basis of universal respect for human life and dignity.”
The film follows a young Bilal as he and his sister are captured into slavery. Despite being enslaved, Bilal develops an inner strength and a deep sense of justice. His faith allows him to undo his own handcuffs and set himself free. The film focuses on Bilal’s emotional journey and coming-of-age story, as well as his strength in the face of adversity.
Making the movie
In the Screen International article, “Akinnuoye-Agbaje to Voice Emirati Animation,” posted December 11, 2014, the film’s producer Ayman Jamal discussed the decision to focus on a real-world figure for their animation debut, a project which involved eight years of research and several years in the production. “We like Marvel movies,” Jamal said, “but feel there is a gap in showing real-life super-heroes and that was the point of starting this movie. Our hero is not a super-hero but a real-life hero.”
Filmmakers have noted that their intent was not to create a documentary about Bilal. By tackling a historical tale, the film faced different challenges than animated movies able to develop a world wholesale. It is also the first major animated feature in which the hero is an African from the Arabian region. To give a sense of realism while avoiding the uncanny valley with its human characters, the film combines exaggerated character features, and adds pet animals that reflect on the emotional and personal qualities of their humans, with highly realistic textures in cloth and hair. In order to create those textiles, a costume designer was brought in to create materials and fabrics for the filmmakers to animate. The research from the projects early years is evident in the depiction of the historical settings, as well.
The film had a budget of over $30 million and featured professionals from more than 22 countries who had worked on such films as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. It featured at the Cannes film festival, where it took the “Best Inspiring Movie” award in animation. Critics have largely praised the film, giving it a rating of 80% fresh on the popular Rotten Tomatoes ranking site. But while many have recommended the film, some critics, such as Aafia of Islam Hashtag in the article, “Animation Movie based on Bilal–the Companion of Prophet Muhammad awarded as the best Animation Movie in Cannes Film Festival,” have recommended against seeing it, feeling it breaks an Islamic prohibition against representations in picture. Interpretations of those rules are frequently debated, however, and the filmmakers clearly saw no conflict when they were creating the film.
Will the film impact how its audience views Islam? Might it succeed regardless of its historical background? Let us know your impressions of the film in the comments.