World renowned director Majid Majidi was part of LastProphet.info Web Portal’s 2013 Seerah Workshop, which was organized under the theme of “Seerah and Visuality.” During the question and answer period of the workshop, Majidi spoke about his artistic life and his new film on the life of the Messenger of Allah (p.b.u.h.)
Q: Can you speak about your journey in starting off the project of your film on the childhood of the Messenger of Allah and what this means to you?
A: I would like to begin here by sharing one of my childhood memories: I was born into a pious family. My mother was a religious woman and she would hold discussions for the people around her, discussions which were inspired by the Qur’an. When we were quite young, we’d go up to her and ask, “Will you make istikhara (the Islamic prayer for guidance) for us; will I receive 100 percent on my exam?” And every time she participated in istikhara she’d say, “Insha’Allah, what’s best will happen.” I would say, “I want 100 percent, what does “the best” mean?” But still, every time she would say, “Insha’Allah the best will take place,” to us. We never quite understood this; what did “the best” really mean and what would its’ outcome be?
Later on, I continued my education and entered the faculty of visual arts. And of course because my family was a pious family, they did not really wish for me to be in cinema and art. But now cinema has turned into a guiding light in sharing the story of our Prophet. And cinema actually has given us an opportunity. I believe that if the succession of the Prophet had continued until today, today he would have used the method of film to communicate with and contact the people of the world. We all see that we are in a very important era, and that the whole world is communicating via cinema and television.
We have signed our name to a huge project in narrating the story of the life of our Prophet to the world. You will see the magnitude of this project when it comes out and everybody will witness this. This determination was actually the blessing of the Prophet to us; this was his blessing. We established a massive set for this project and this will, in my opinion, will remain an important moment for Islamic cinema and the Islamic World.
Q: How did you decide to make this film?
A: I want to give some statistics on movies that feature Islamic history. There is a great deal of neglect in Islamic history on this topic. There are approximately 250 works of this sort having to do with Jesus (p.b.u.h.) and his disciples. There are 120 works of this nature pertaining to Moses (p.b.u.h). Outside of these, there are roughly 80 works produced on other Prophets. There are 40 works pertaining to Buddha. And there is only one single movie having to do with the life of the Prophet that we know of: the Message. This film, directed by Moustapha Akkad, was of course the result of a great deal of effort and was valuable during its time. However it, in my opinion, does not share even the smallest edge of Islamic spirit. As you know, it’s a movie about war and it does not reflect the message of the Prophet entirely. It’s inadequate.
As a result of the increasing Islamophobia in recent years and other insults hurled at Islam, I assigned myself a task. I thought, “How long will we sit around and wait; we have to exhibit some kind of a reaction?” And of course this reaction would have been a job, or a Project I’d undertake. We could show our reaction by signing our names to a project. In actuality, what I wanted to do was engage in a real “reading” of Islam and tell the story of the Prophet to Muslims and the World. I wanted to narrate the real Islam by distancing it from harsh films and terror. Islam is the religion of mercy and if we were to summarize in a single sentence, Islam is the religion of love and affection.
We need to fill in (the gaps) in our perspective of Islam. This is mandatory for us before the Western World. There is exalted view towards Islam. There is plenty to be said to all people. There are words which belonging to Islam and our Prophet and these words speak to our contemporary world and have to do with human rights.
There is also an important word regarding the wars the Prophet participated in: As we know, war for us always has to do with the enemy, death and fire. But look at how the Messenger of Allah lays down the law of war: “Don’t destroy trees, not a single leaf of a tree should fall; you must not even destroy rivers and seas; you must not pollute them. There should be no harm done unto children, women and the elderly. Treat the captives of war as you would yourselves and give them from whatever you are eating.”
Where else can you find such a perspective? You cannot find such beautiful and graceful view in any school. So then can there not be talk of torment towards Islam, which is labeled as a “religion of terror,” “religion of rage,” or “religion of tyranny”? I see us as the most important factor in this perception. We are the reason for this. Because we did not narrate Islam to the Islamic World and particularly the Western World, in a correct fashion. Of course in this case the enemy will go ahead and engage in hostility.
The TV shows which we are witnessing on Turkish television as of late are not befitting of Islamic values. Unfortunately, we are witnessing home-wrecking immorality. I personally become ashamed when I witness these depictions -- these programs. And I think that none of this is a value a Muslim country should espouse. It’s a source of embarrassment… We witness truly destructive elements in the programs I am speaking of. There is a great purpose behind such programs. When we look at these we may see that the enemy is right in our homes. The enemy which we think of as being far away – this enemy of morality – is actually right inside our own homes.
Q: If we were to return to your movie… Can you speak to us about the preparation phase of your movie?
A: I tried to in my own way sign my name to a great project and create a movie that will carry the values of the Islamic world. Actually with this project we tried to create a film that is of global standards. Here we did not see just the Muslim World as our audience; we tried to create a film which appeals to the entire world. There was a three year preparation period at hand. We conducted research about the life of the Messenger of Allah. The resources on the childhood of the Messenger of Allah are sadly inadequate. To this end, we consulted with scholars from the Islamic countries and the Islamic world and gathered important information. We gained great access to research in a wide range of topic such as geography and clothing. We traveled the lands where the Prophet lived and the places he visited. Actually we wanted to sign our names to a project that is equivalent to a documentary. But we did come across various difficulties. One of these atrocities is that which has been committed by the Wahhabis. Unfortunately, they are trying to destroy or damage every artifact left from the Prophet. This is a serious problem. We don’t even know who we should complain to about this. For example, I conducted many travels to find the place where the tribe of Halima As-Sa'diyya (The Prophet's wet-nurse, Halima) lived and when I finally found it, I was truly dissapointed because there was no trace left. They had damaged everything. If they could they would even destroy the Masjid an Nabawi (Prophet’s Mosque in Medina).
There was a great deal of effort at play. We tried to gather many samples from that land, such as accessories, and clothing. We tried to form a great treasure by gathering various samples. I can speak of them as a great resource, a big library. These will in the future help us in different movies and help us to conduct different projects on the life of the Messenger. The decor we have used here were formed as the result of a great deal of work. I think we have put forth a great work for the global movie history as well. I can say this much: we replicated a construction Mecca exactly and that of Medina, as much as our movie permitted, in accordance with the framework of our project. We tried to benefit from the best names in the World where the script was concerned. We worked with a world-renowned cinematographer named Vittorio Storaro. And of course a world renowned name such as Storaro working with us was a great miracle. Similarly, certain costume design experts from Germany and Yugoslavia cooperated with us. We worked on the part of the script having to do with elephants in South Africa. We filmed the attack against the Kabah which took place prior to the birth of the Messenger of Allah. We really put our names to a great project. We cooperated with Scott Anderson on special effects and the final effects are being applied to the film now. My guess is that this movie will hit the silver screen in one year. I wish for it to become a trailblazer in a new movement.
Q: One of the aspects of your film which people are most curious about whether or not the physical being of the prophet will be shown… Will we see the Prophet physically in this movie?
A: Due to our respect to the world of Islam, the face of the Messenger of Allah will absolutely not be depicted in this film.
Q: Did you feature the miracles that occurred during the birth of the Prophet in this film?
A: We did feature the miracles having to do with the night of birth of the Messenger of Allah. We feature all manifestations of his birth that took place such as the falling of the stars. But one of his most important miracles is morality. This morality appeals to every era and not just the era in which he lived. Our Prophet manifested humane blessings and humane wisdom. And the most important of these attributes is loyalty and this is why he was referred to as “Muhammed ul Amin.” (peace be upon him) And we emphasized this miracle the most.
Q: When we are watching your movies we feel as though we are reading the Qur’an. The verses of the Qur’an flock to one’s mind. When you are making these films do you have set out with a certain verse or Islamic value in mind? Or is this something that reflects onto the screen inevitably when a Muslim creates a film?
A: In our movies we follow the path set out by Allah: The sirat-al mustaqim (straight path). And of course, as we travel on this path, the color of Allah, the color of “Khuda,” reflects onto our works. As long as we are on that path, I believe that the rest will be the “color of Allah.” I make films that feature my own beliefs and thoughts and of course feed off of the school of thought (madhab) of the society I grew up in .
Q: From what we gather from your words, we understand that you see this Project as being more than a film. But because the people you worked with are non-Muslims, it make be seen as just a film. What kind of negative and positive interplay was there between you and the non-Muslims who cooperated with you?
A: To answer this I want to share two small experiences which will fully address the question. During my first travel to Mecca and Medina, I had doubts and questions in my mind; I was thinking “How will this come to be?” and “How will a project so grand come to life?”A friend, an elder brother, was there at the time. He said, “The owner of the project is here, go and ask him.” At that moment I stood before the grave of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). I shared these [concerns] with him and said, “Show me to way,” “If it is beneficial, and if this will bring about goodness, then I will travel on this path.”
One of the greatest problems with the film was regarding the cinematographer. Our cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, is over 70 years of age and he is among the best in the world, in fact, I can say that he is the best alive. He has been nominated for an Oscar five times and has won on three occasions. When I told my friends that I wanted to work with him, they said that such a thing would not be possible. “Such a thing cannot happen, such a great cinematographer cannot come to a place like Iran, which is depicted to be infested with terrorists,” they said. But I was insistent on working with this name. He has a book titled, “Writing with Light.” And when we look at his images, we see that he has drawn them like a picture.
This is how I addressed the Messenger of Allah at The Holy Tomb of Prophet Muhammed in Madina (Rawda al-Mutahhara): “I really want for this person to be a part of this project. If you too see this as being beneficial, please let it be so.” Later when I returned to Iran, we got in touch with his agency. The agency said, “He is currently abroad for another project, but send us your script and we will forward it to him so that he may examine it when he comes back.” We asked that they send it to him as soon possible, saying he may be abroad but we would like for him to know about the existence of the project. A few days later, good news arrived from our friend responsible for communications. They informed us of the e-mail which Storaro had sent.
They had asked me for more information (on the movie) in this message and I quickly responded, talking about the film. And of course therein we continued with our insistence using praising words. The next day I received another e-mail. In the first page the name of our Creator, Allah, was written. I was really surprised at him sending something like this. He had said, “I will be honored to be part of this project which is about the Last Prophet sent by our Great Creator. I want to contact you directly without having the agency as an intermediary.”
One month after, we met in Rome. We talked about the movie from morning to night. But I kept thinking the following and always had anxiety about it : “How did Vittorio Storaro accept this film?” I kept seeing a secret buried in his eyes but he wasn’t talking about this secret. I asked him, “What happened for you to accept this? Can you please tell me your secret?” He then said the following: “I was invited to this project.” And I said, “I have no doubt about your invitation to this project, but how did it come to be that you accepted to be on board?” And let me explain the rest: Vittario Storaro was writing a book about the light of Prophets on earth. He had been in the middle of this work which began with Prophet Abraham and had come as far as Prophet Muhammad. When he had received the e-mail I sent him, he had been working on Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) for three months. At that moment I had emailed him he was reading about the Miraj (the Ascension of the Prophet into the Heavens following his night journey to Jerusalem)
Q: When you began to work on the film, everyone lined up to provide both provide monetary and spiritual support. Can you talk about that a little bit? Is that still the case?
A: These values stem from beliefs. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed by the enthusiasm of people. There was a great deal of interest and excitement. I consider this to be from the blessing of the project. People were sacrificing animals where we were and they were not doing this in exchange for anything. I can even say this: They would extend their hands onto our vehicle as though the hands of the Prophet were in it. We experienced unusual events as well. In the shootings that took place in Southern Iran, there was a sick woman among the characters in the cast. I went to her and said, “You don’t have to be here, you are sick,” and she said, “No, I’m going to be here.” Of course these figures were given nominal fees. I told her how much she’d be getting and to go home.” She said, “I am here because I’m sick,” “The reason why I am here is to seek a cure through asking the Messenger of Allah for his intercession.” I was really touched by this story and that night when I spoke to the governor of that district, I told him about the story of that woman. He asked me the woman’s name and her illness. And the next day they met all costs in transporting her to her home and placing her into treatment at a hospital. We witnessed very awe-inspiring and beautiful events during this project. I can say that we saw the manifestations of the Messenger of Allah
Q: Your movie covers the childhood of the Messenger of Allah. During this time, there were ignorant people in Mecca and throughout the World. Do you show them in your movie?
A: Of course the film takes place in Mecca during the Jahiliyya (age of Ignorance, period before Islam) era and what we featured was how the Prophet lived during that era and the necessity of a prophet arriving in the face of that era of the Jahiliyya. I believe that the world today is no different than the Jahiliyya of the time. We live in a world that is infested with death, rapes, opression and wars. I can say that we still live in the phase of the Jahl (ignorant). I think that everyone, particularly the Islamic World, is expecting another kind of manifestation to rid themselves of the shackles of this Jahiliyya.
Q: What would you like to say about your film in closing?
A: Lastly, I would like to talk about imagery. We had no reference where the dramatic side of this matter was concerned; meaning, we did not have a face which had been depicted before. Of course we begin to build this again and tried to bring this to the level of becoming a reference. We witness such imagery in other religions in different realms; they are always ahead of us in terms of pictures, statues and cinema and they have many references at hand. And naturally with the work group which we formed for the movie, when we used to talk about this topic, everyone’s minds would go to references pertaining to Jesus and Mariam. But we thought the following: we must create something new . Not using those references, we must create our own references that belong to the East, the Islamic World. So we tried to create an original sample. And we will see how successful this was when the movie comes out.
Because our job is to do with cinema, imagery was at the forefront. More so than dialogue, it is images that are important to us. Here we tried to emphasize the relationship of the Prophet with nature and his relationship with the world, since he was a child. We attempted to do all of this with imagery. We tried to create something that was of us, which belonged to the Islamic World.
Q: Could you elaborate please?
A: In order to clarify, I want to talk about a sequence in the film. There is a sequence where the Messenger of Allah is six years old. At that time, the Prophet is going towards the Cave of Hira with his grandfather, Abdulmuttalib. While headed that way, because the Prophet is still young he is walking fast and after a while he realizes that he’s lost his Grandfather along the way. He looks around, but cannot find Abdulmuttalib and continues along his path. The plants on his way look very graceful, sprouting up through the rocks. The lush plants appear as though they are a green rug that has been laid at the feet of the Prophet. The Prophet continues to walk in a way to not damage or crush the plants. A wind blows and the robe which the Messenger is wearing becomes hooked on a plant that has thorns. As you know when we are faced with a thorn, we try to get rid of it so that it does not hurt anyone. Now look how the Messenger of Allah reacts; the Prophet tries to untangle the cloth from the plant, without damaging it in any way. While doing this, a thread from the Messenger’s clothing is pulled out and the plant begins turns downward, as though it were bowing. And the Prophet tries to save his outfit from this plant. The bowing plant, once the thread is ripped from it, quickly becomes erect and begins to shake. All of the flowers on the plant then began to separate from their root s and float in the sky, as though each one of them becomes free at that very moment. The dandelions gather in front of the Cave of Hira in such a way that it is as though they become a cloud between the skies and the earth. It is as though the skies have descended unto the earth. There is a very poetic realm at play here. Here we see the relationship that the Messenger of Allah has with nature. This is one of the imageries used; there is nothing strange. In fact it’s quite simple but it displays the relationship the Prophet had with beings in a very simple and poetic fashion. We tried to use very simple and beautiful concepts in this film, not anything that is strange or hard. Because in my opinion, the greatest miracle of the Prophet after the Qur’an was to give life to and embody morality. And in this movie, this is the miracle which we tried to depict. And truly, the matters and dimensions of this morality are more valuable than anything else.