Mustafa Akkad first released his iconic religious film The Message in 1976, but the Arab world wasn’t ready for it. It was misunderstood, marred in controversy and denied a Middle Eastern release.
Now, thirteen years since Mustafa’s death, the once-banned film is finally going to be seen across the region.
On June 14, both the Arabic and English versions of the movie, painstakingly filmed with two different casts and meticulously restored into 4K resolution by Mustafa’s son, Malek Akkad, will hit cinemas in the UAE for an Eid release.
Actors Abdullah Gaith (left) and Anthony Quinn (right), who both play Hamza, with director Mustafa Akkad.
The movies will also show in Palestine, Oman and Saudi Arabia, the last of which recently lifted a decades-long ban on theatres.
WHAT IS ‘THE MESSAGE’?
In the ‘70s, Mustafa simultaneously filmed his historical drama, The Message, in two languages. The Arabic movie, titled Al Resala, starred Abdullah Gaith, Hassan Joundi and Muna Wassef, while the English version starred Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas and Michael Ansara.
The film told the story of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) through peripheral characters, as it is forbidden for the Prophet (PBUH) to be portrayed in creative mediums. Instead, viewers were taken through key moments in Islamic history through the eyes of Hamza Ibn Abdul Muttalib, Hind Bint Utbah and Bilal Ibn Rabah, among others.
Abdullah Gaith as Hamza in the Arabic version.
Mustafa’s primary intention was to eradicate ignorance in the West. But he was met with resistance at every stage.
Then an unknown filmmaker, he was kicked out of Morocco months into shooting due to pressures from global governments. After relocating to Libya to wrap up filming, the movie’s release was met with protests from religious groups.
“I have letters of [my father’s] saying, ‘I will never stop. I believe in this.’ It’s really amazing to think that somewhere, he found that strength to know he was right, and know that he was going to show everybody, ‘I can do this.’ It’s beautiful,” said his 49-year-old son Malek, speaking to tabloid! over the phone from Los Angeles.
Irene Papas as Hind in the English version.
ISLAM IN AMERICA
When Aleppo-born Mustafa arrived to the United States in the 1950s as a student of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), he was shocked by how little was known about Islam. A third of Americans followed its teachings, but ignorance prevailed.
“His intentions were so pure and noble. He said, ‘I want to show the world why this is the basis of our culture.’ Like in the West, we have the Judeo-Christian culture [and] we have Christmas, and we don’t even think about it. He wanted to show in the Muslim world, this is why we have Eid and Ramadan,” said Malek.
Mustafa had built a reputation in America as a small-time television producer. He partnered with Kuwaiti producer Mohammad Sanouss and, together, they spent four years convincing investors to fund the project before signing on a scriptwriter.
Michael Ansara as Abu Sufyan Ibn Harb in the English version.
“The next challenge was getting the religious approvals, which he got out of Al Ahzar University [in Egypt] and the Shia Council in Lebanon. He got everybody to sign on and approve it,” recalled Malek.
“He set the whole thing up in Morocco and then halfway through the shoot, there was all of a sudden this controversy. ‘Who is this guy? We don’t know who he is, and he’s taking on the story of the Prophet (PBUH)!’ Enough controversy came out that the king of Morocco, King Hassan, who was an investor in the movie, was forced to kick him out of Morocco,” he added.
‘KIND OF LIKE A CIRCUS’
Malek was only seven when the film came out, and even younger when he visited his father on set. He remembers it as a circus, with “very interesting and exciting people working crazy hours.”
Now a producer and father himself, he is taken aback by his dad’s patience.
Abdullah Gaith as Hamza in the Arabic version.
“I can’t imagine my 10-year-old son every five seconds saying, ‘Baba, what’s that? What about that?’ [My dad] never once told me, ‘Go sit with your mother,’ or ‘Go away.’ He never once said that, and I don’t know if I would have that same patience today,” he said.
The dense subject matter of the film eluded Malek when he attended the first screening as a child. But he immediately fell in love with the film’s Oscar-nominated score.
“I got the album, and I actually [went on to] play the music with my rock band. This made my father very happy to grow up around,” he said.
Malek eventually grew to understand and appreciate the film deeply. A few years ago, he decided to digitally restore the movie, in both languages, into 4K resolution. With each film running around three hours, it proved to be a hefty undertaking.
Johnny Sekka as Bilal in the English version of ‘The Message’.
“It took about two and a half years. Of course, not non-stop, but on and off. We had to find all the original elements, the original negatives,” said Malek. “You have to scan every single frame — that’s hundreds of thousands of frames. And you go through each frame and you make sure there’s no scratch, no hair.”
The colour was boosted and significant changes were made to the sound. The original film was in Dolby Stereo, the industry standard in 1976, which was updated to 5.1.
“I did it just as a love letter to my father. I don’t know how it’s going to be received, but I just wanted to do it anyway, for him,” Malek said.
“It was expensive, but hopefully we will do OK. I hope people get excited. It’s the best way I can honour his memory and the beautiful art he left us with.”
NO TRAGIC END
Mustafa was killed in the 2005 Amman bombings, aged 75, along with his 34-year-old daughter Rima.
They were in the Grand Hyatt Hotel lobby when a bomb exploded, killing Rima on impact; Mustafa succumbed to his injuries two days later. The bombings were immediately claimed by Al Qaida in Iraq.
Despite the tragedy, Malek wants his father to be remembered for the journey he took, not the end he was met with.
Restoring his father’s films, and beginning work on a behind-the-scenes documentary, was part of his own therapy.
“It was cathartic for me, and it definitely, in a way, brought me close to him when I needed it. It was something that I felt just had to be done … I don’t want the tragic ending to remain in people’s mind — I want the beautiful life and work that he achieved to remain as his legacy,” said Malek.
A documentary titled The Messenger will be shopped around to film festivals in the West, exploring the trials and tribulations that Mustafa faced during production.
“I had found some old journals of his and some old letters, and to me as a filmmaker, the story of the making of these movies is as exciting as the movie itself,” said Malek. “It could be a ten-hour documentary, really.”
PAY IT FORWARD
Malek is also partnering with his and his father’s shared alma mater, University of Southern California, to help regional filmmakers.
“We’re doing the Mustafa Akkad Endowment for Cinematic Arts. Every year, one young filmmaker from the region, who qualifies and needs some help, will be selected to travel to Hollywood and study at USC, and then hopefully they come back to the region and do incredible things,” said Malek. The initiative will launch in 2019.
“That to me really is the most significant way I can continue what he started. He would be so happy to see how the Arab cinema now is starting to really take off. He would be the biggest fan of that.”
DID YOU KNOW?
The Message filmmaker Mustafa Akkad was best known for producing John Carpenter’s Halloween.
He shaped low-budget history by serving as executive producer on the first eight films in the horror franchise. He was the only one to be involved in all eight.
Son Malek Akkad is continuing on his legacy. A new Halloween film is set to release on October 19, 2018.
“We just finished production. We shot in South Carolina and now we’re in post-production,” said Malek. He shared a feeling that the film is going to be “the biggest one ever.”
“I like all the other teams I worked on, but especially this one, because we had John Carpenter, the original director, and Jamie Lee Curtis. And they all had their careers started by my father. So for me now to work with them again, it was like he was there with us.”
Don’t miss it
The Message releases in the UAE on June 14.