In October 2011, under a complete media blackout, the most ambitious and expensive cinematic project in Iranian history was launched. There had been no leaks regarding the production. The first news came the following month with two announcements: Famed director Majid Majidi declared that he was shooting a film that would “bring pride to Iran and Iranians.” And minister of culture and Islamic guidance Mohammad Hosseini casually mentioned that a movie was being made about what might be the most controversial artistic topic in the world: the Prophet Muhammad.
The movie, Hosseini said, would be produced by the Foundation of the Oppressed (Bonyad-e Mostazafan) – a government-controlled charitable corporation with billions of dollars in holdings. The primary location, an enormous replica of sixth-century Mecca, would be constructed outside the holy city of Qom, about two hours’ drive south of Tehran. The total budget was not made public, but sources close to the production said that it was $35 million (US dollars) – nearly 20 times greater than the next largest Iranian production to date.
After a year of little more than rumors, in November 2012 the first reports appeared on officially sanctioned websites about the film, to be titled Muhammad’s Childhood. Mohammad Mehdi Heidarian, a regime insider and former vice minister of culture and Islamic guidance, was announced as producer. A heretofore unknown organization called Shining Light (Nour-e Taabaan), was named as the project’s financial backer. No information was released about its structure or directors, and the entire production seemed to be proceeding under special security measures. There was no further mention of the Foundation of the Oppressed, whose purported mission of serving the destitute was hard to reconcile with the film’s staggering budget.
By now, there was widespread discussion of the project’s ever-rising cost – new estimate: $50 million – and the involvement of celebrated movie-industry figures from abroad. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, a three-time Academy Award winner for Apocalypse Now, Reds, and The Last Emperor, arrived in Iran with a 30-man crew. Another Oscar winner, Scott E. Anderson, visual effects supervisor for films such as Adventures of Tintin, Superman Returns, and Starship Troopers, was employed as well. The names of many other international award winners have been associated with the project, though without official verification.
While it appears that many lead creative positions have been entrusted to foreign filmmakers, a major exception is the director himself. Internationally known for Children of Heaven (1997), the first Iranian film to be nominated for an Academy Award, Majidi maintains a special place within the Iranian power elite.
He first came to notice at Arts Unite (Howzah Honari), a government entity established soon after the overthrow of the shah in 1979 as a stronghold of revolutionary art. Majidi, then 20 years old, would stand guard in front of the Arts Unite headquarters at night – an expression of his readiness to defend the new regime. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who would also go on to renown as a film director, stood guard duty as well.
Majidi began his cinematic career as an actor and director of short films, all centering on religious and revolutionary themes. Methodically, he became a regime darling, which helped bring considerable financial support to his projects. Focusing on simple tales, employing the top Iranian acting talent, and relying on an unadventurous directorial style and a gently mystical depiction of Islamic faith, his ability to spend lavishly (by local industry standards) allowed him to produce a string of films, including The Color of God (1999), Baran (2001), and The Songs of Sparrows (2008), that have brought him international recognition.
He was apparently also a personal favorite of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s, responsible for organizing numerous meetings between the supreme leader and members of the Iranian film industry. He became notorious among the country’s mostly secular cinematic community for the high-profile religious ceremonies he regularly hosted at his own residence.
This rosy period came to an end during the 2009 presidential campaign, during which Majidi publicly supported reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi and produced a publicity film for him. In the violent aftermath of the vote, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection was widely believed to have been rigged, Majidi quietly severed all relations with Mousavi and the opposition Green Movement. As Ahmadinejad subsequently maneuvered for increased autonomy, Majidi allied himself with Khamenei and his coterie as they resisted the president’s power grab.
Successfully working his way back into the leader’s confidence, Majidi advanced his extravagant vision for Muhammad’s Childhood in media silence so the Ahmadinejad camp could not use his Green dalliance against the project. Khamenei took such a personal interest that, in October 2012, he visited the movie’s sprawling Mecca location. Though the visit was unprecedented – the supreme leader had never previously toured a film set – it received no press coverage at the time.
Another factor driving the unusual level of secrecy was the budget. Iran was descending into an economic crisis exacerbated by international sanctions and the Ahmadinejad administration’s incompetence. Official acknowledgment that Hollywood-level sums were being spent on a motion picture would surely have offended many Iranians.
But perhaps the most sensitive issue is the very making of a movie about the Prophet in the cradle of the Shia faith, which places special emphasis on Muhammad’s immediate family. At a time of conflict with the Saudis and the Persian Gulf sheikdoms, adherents of Sunni Islam, an international uproar against the film was feared; indeed, concerns were explicitly raised by religious authorities in Cairo. The real challenge, however, came from Qatar, which in December 2012 announced that it would produce its own movie about the Prophet’s life. The declared budget: one billion dollars. Barrie M. Osborne, who oversaw the Lord of the Rings series, was named as producer. The project’s Qatari production company, ironically, is named Alnoor – roughly, “shining light.”
According to Majidi, he and a research team comprising dozens of historians and archeologists have consulted with Shia and Sunni scholars from Morocco to Lebanon to Iraq in order to ensure an accurate portrayal of Muhammad’s early years. Even though Shia culture is much less sensitive than Sunni to the depiction of holy figures, it was decided that no image of the Prophet’s face would be shown to reduce the potential for controversy. This cautious approach foreshadows the many challenges that will confront the promised two sequels, which will deal with Muhammad’s adult life.
In contrast to that later period, the Prophet’s youth is a fairly uncontentious topic between the major Islamic denominations. According to sources familiar with Majidi’s script, it depicts Muhammad’s adventures through the age of 12. The saga concludes with his journey to Syria and encounter with Bahira, a Christian monk who, according to legend, foretold the advent of the new Prophet. In the course of the narrative, the young Muhammad escapes a bevy of perils, including a Jewish assassination plot.
Now in the final stages of post-production, Muhammad’s Childhood is viewed with deep cynicism by many in the Iranian motion picture field. The money devoted to it could have breathed life into dozens of projects in a film industry that perennially suffers from lack of funding and relies on the public sector for survival. Resentment has been amplified by the announcement of plans for a Tehran-wide celebration of the film’s forthcoming release, involving screenings at non-conventional venues and the consequent dispersal of even more precious funds.
An experienced film producer and screenwriter, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that the project raises some serious questions. “Isn’t the long list of global film luminaries [involved] just a show of power at a time of economic crisis?” he asks. “The creative sector is on its last legs, about to expire between the censor’s blade and the slab it lies on. It’s famished for money. Why should the country shoulder the production of the most flat, least plausible religious film about Islam’s Prophet?”
Others, however, see new opportunities in the project.
“This film raises the bar in many ways,” says one young director. “The government will have to start spending more on other parts of the film industry, and the technical knowledge being imported will raise expectations for other commercial Iranian productions.”