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TO THE MOUNTAIN: Muhammad.
Archive Photos/Getty Images

Documentary

Sanitized life

Public broadcasting’s look at Muhammad offers everything but a critical look at Islam’s founder

Was Muhammad a force of good or evil? That’s the question British author, broadcaster, and professing Muslim Rageh Omaar promises to investigate in the early moments of the new documentary, The Life of Muhammad, airing on PBS beginning August 20. If Omaar seems to have a conflict of journalistic interest regarding the subject, it’s no more so than the film’s director Faris Kermani, writer Ziauddin Sardar, or executive producer Aaqil Ahmed (also the Head of Religion & Ethics at the BBC, and the man who originally commissioned the project). All are Muslims.

This isn’t to suggest that those who follow Islam shouldn’t have had roles—even major roles—in a documentary aimed at the general public about Islam’s founder. It’s only to point out that almost no one associated with the movie seems to have been in a position to approach the question with much skepticism. Even the name of the production company—Crescent Films—betrays a marked partiality. (It’s hard to imagine, for example, public broadcasting airing an investigative series into the life of Christ from an outfit called Ichthys Productions.)

There’s no doubt, from the outset, that the filmmakers are partial. Within the first few minutes Omaar explains that out of deference to Muslim standards, the three-part series will avoid depicting any images of Muhammad—whether in artwork or in dramatic reenactments. It shows the same sensitivity to his wives. We see paintings of the women, but their faces are carefully whited out. 

The Life of Muhammad is well-paced and visually arresting, thanks to locations in Mecca and Medina, but a pall of propaganda hangs over the entire production. With the exception of a few brief appearances by Jihad Watch’s Robert Spencer, whose sound bites are limited to what must be the least critical things he’s ever said about Islam, most of the experts Omaar consults display a sympathy for the religion as naked as his own.

Nearly every element of modern Islam that Westerners find troubling is, the array of talking heads assure us, the result of either a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of the Quran. Muhammad never intended for anyone to be coerced into converting to Islam, and Sharia was by no means intended to rule civil societies. By his own example, Muhammad meant for women to be equal to men, and he never required them to cover their heads or faces. Nor did he view Jews with enmity, considering them, instead, brothers of an earlier branch of his own belief system. And he certainly never intended for Muslims to prosecute a war of religion by targeting innocents. “The Quran says that if the enemy asks for peace, you must lay down your arms immediately and accept any terms however disadvantageous,” author Karen Armstrong informs us.

All of this leaves the viewer with one glaring and glaringly unanswered question—if all this is true, why are so many of this religion’s adherents getting it so publicly wrong?

The film’s characterization of Muhammad as a prophet of peace—indeed a prophet of outright self-abnegation—might be more persuasive if those who espouse a very different sort of Muhammad were also given a full hearing. But The Life of Muhammad doesn’t bother with the “extremists” who hold more hard-line views of jihad until the last five minutes of the last episode. Then, though they only have approximately 30 seconds to express their views, two young Muslim radicals sound (though certainly disturbing), intelligent, consistent, and not at all as if they’re ignorant of what their faith teaches.

Omaar and his scholars speak often throughout the three hours about how the “enemies of Islam” distort the tenets of its founder in order to attack it, and that Muslims have never elected anyone who advocates extremism to represent them. The filmmakers might think about mentioning that to the Egyptians, Iranians, and Turks, to name a few recent examples.

Listen to Megan Basham discuss The Life of Muhammad on The World and Everything in It:

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Cinephil


Cinephil

Documentary

The Act of Killing

Self-deception has too often been a gateway to committing and living with atrocities. Rarely has a truth been as painfully documented as in director Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling account of an elderly mass murderer pleasantly relating and re-enacting his killings from nearly 50 years ago.  

In late 1965, Anwar Congo lived in an Indonesia that had just survived an attempted coup by factions of the military and elements of the Indonesian Communist party. Indonesia’s neighbor to the north, South Vietnam, was embroiled in a violent war with Communists within its own country and with Communist North Vietnam.

The fear and anxiety many Indonesians felt over Communist influence led to exaggerated tales of atrocities Communists had perpetrated in the coup attempt and a subsequent dehumanization of their Communist neighbors. Gangs enlisted men like Anwar, with the government’s approval, to round up and kill suspected Communists, leading to a roughly six-month slaughter of somewhere between 300,000 and 1 million people.

Oppenheimer takes an innovative and extraordinarily effective approach to this material by asking Anwar to re-enact, with actors and some of his comrades, the killings they perpetrated. Anwar happily demonstrates such techniques as stringing wire around a victim’s neck, which was, as he describes, less messy than other forms of killing. Another killer involved in the re-enactments unironically wears a black T-shirt with “apathetic” emblazoned on the front.

One particularly jarring sequence plays like a Saturday Night Live sketch with poor taste (a low bar, to be sure). The victims actually thank their killers for dispatching them as they stand in front of an idyllic waterfall scene while the swelling chords of “Born Free” soar above the watery mist.

Even more incredible than these bizarre scenes is the effect all this playacting has on Anwar, draining the Novocaine from his soul and compelling him to face, for the first time in nearly 50 years, his horrific actions.

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Photo by Graham Willoughby/Tremolo Productions

Darlene Love
Photo by Graham Willoughby/Tremolo Productions

Documentary

20 Feet from Stardom

Her voice trembling, eyes watering, Merry Clayton admits, “I felt that if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”  

From Ray Charles to Sheryl Crow to Elton John, musical stardom has afforded many pop icons a measure of earthly glory. But in this documentary, the spotlight finally hits some of the 20th century’s greatest back-up singers like Clayton—people you’ve heard, but never heard of.  

Why haven’t the African-American women featured here become lead singers? “It’s a bit of a walk,” Bruce Springsteen explains, “that walk to the front is complicated.”

The hurdles don’t include lack of talent. Interviews with Sting, Springsteen, Bette Midler, and other stars testify to the abilities of these women. Plus, a soundtrack of pop/rock classics gives viewers firsthand evidence. Merry Clayton’s story of recording vocals for “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones—in her pajamas in the dead of night no less—takes a spine-tingling turn when her voice track is isolated and played for a newly impressed Mick Jagger.

So what kept them from realizing their dreams? Producers, for one. Darlene Love explains how Beatles producer Phil Spector recorded her voice, and then—against his word—released it on another artist’s record. But most of these artists aren’t quite sure why their solo careers flopped, and the critics aren’t that insightful. Several point to a plantation mentality, but neglect the possibility of flaws in costume, material, or timing.

What’s clear, though, is that the faith of these women helped shape the sound of a generation: Nearly all grew up as ministers’ daughters in call and response church choirs.  

While this PG-13 film occasionally flounders on the sex, drug, and rock ’n’ roll cliché (including foul language), it also hints at a grander tale. “God gave me this talent, and I intend to use it,” Darlene Love says of her success. And those like Clayton who keep singing from the shadows offer hope of a higher call and response.

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