A win for Bradford film critics

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As a general rule, you should never talk about a movie you haven’t seen. But The lady in the sky turns out to be a tough movie to catch. Plus, whole crowds of people are talking about it without having seen it, so maybe my participation won’t hurt too much. Even if it sounds like Vatican kitsch, The lady in the sky is actually about another religion. In present-day Iraq, a boy loses his mother and thus learns the story of Fatima, one of Muhammad’s daughters. And that’s where a seemingly radical historical drama enters tricky ground.

Because not all moviegoers took the film to heart. The citizens of Bradford, for example, turn out to include a surprising proportion of film critics. Like me, they haven’t seen the film. Unlike me, they have no desire to do so. They already know what they’re thinking – and they don’t like it one bit. So if you were tempted to go to Bradford to buy tickets and a tub of popcorn, the trip would be in vain. For although The lady in the sky hit some of the country’s cinemas last week, Cineworld has now canceled all screenings of the film.

The cause of the cancellation was the large crowd of bearded film critics in Bradford, Birmingham, Bolton and Sheffield who turned out to protest the screening of a film they insist is ‘blasphemous’ . Again, it’s hard to see how anyone can know a movie is blasphemous if they haven’t seen it. Except word has been circulating in these various local communities that the film portrays the aforementioned Muhammad and his family. A petition calling for it to be banned has garnered more than 120,000 signatures. No real actor plays Muhammad. Perhaps aware of the Scandinavian controversies surrounding the man cartoons, no actor has taken on the role, perhaps knowingly. Although I would have liked to suggest a number of actors for the role – Hugh Grant, for example.

No, Muhammad’s appearance is apparently hinted at by CGI, circumventing prohibitions in some parts of Islam on depicting the religion’s founder. However, as often, this is not enough. The defenders of The lady in the sky pointed out that the film is overwhelmingly positive about Muhammad and his many children, especially Fatima. It’s flattering, we’re told, as if it would appease anyone who likes to demonstrate in front of cinemas.

It reminds the Jewel of Medina
controversy of 14 years ago. It was then that a novel written by an American woman sought to portray the beautiful love story between the old man Muhammad and his last opposite-aged wife, Aisha. A number of people went crazy over the book, which turned out to be something of a grounding romance. The publisher dropped the novel and it became a free speech issue.

I ended up reading the work and nearly got type 2 diabetes as a result. To say it wasn’t critical is to understate things. The novel was both long and sweet, but that didn’t appease critics who like to ban books they haven’t read. A small London publisher picked up the novel for publication, and his house was soon burned down by bearded literary critics.

Which brings me back to Bradford, where local church leaders led the first protests outside the local Cineworld. One, dressed for 7th century Arabia, told a film crew: “My feelings are everywhere. My mind is everywhere. That’s for sure. He continued: ‘How can anyone come and attack the beloved wife of the beloved Prophet?’ There followed a lot of “peace be upon him” in Arabic and a lot of confusion about what the film was about, but that’s how it is with films you haven’t seen. Other Bradford religious leaders blamed Shia Muslims (a Shia Muslim helped write the film) and claimed it was a hate film inspired by anti-Sunni bias. Some protesters yearned to be more up to date in their calls for self-pity by declaring the film “racist”.

It seems that Cineworld was not prepared for this meeting place between the 21st and the 7th century. Perhaps the cinema employees thought of other people who annoyed the most peaceful religion in the world. Perhaps they thought of the teacher from nearby Batley who was suspended from his job last year and forced into hiding after being accused of “blasphemy” by some local Muslims.

It is to be expected that in these free speech battles, the majority of people will decide that the game is not worth the candle or the firebomb. And while some people might be willing to hold on for the sake of In Search of Lost Time Where die hard 2the reality is that very few people want to risk their lives for a piece of schlock cinema.

Before Cineworld released the film, local theaters were already self-censoring for fear of crowds. A rather scared white guy in charge of the local Cineworld came out a few days before the official announcement and addressed the crowd through a megaphone. The blasphemous film was no longer to be shown in Bradford, he announced. The crowd shouted “Allahu Akbar” at this happy news. Some scrambled to give him a bigger microphone, to better diffuse his subjugation. In addition to the ‘Allahu Akbar’-ing, there were also a number of ‘Takbir’s, which amounts to the same thing. Anyway, there was a lot of rejoicing. The blasphemous film that no one had watched can no longer be watched. And again, as for the teacher at Batley, we will say that the problem has disappeared.

Long-term readers will know that I suspect the situation will be different. The free-speech left likes to imagine that guys like Bradford will one day return to British standards and we have to be patient. My own feeling is that a good number of them won’t. Still, I accept that this view constitutes a minority in the public square these days, and that the most appropriate thing to do is to cross our fingers and look forward to Bradford being the ‘city of the culture” in 2025. Which may sound like a joke, but it isn’t.

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