Gibran’s The Prophet opens in the US
Washington - Khalil Gibran’s classic collection The Prophet has been turned into an animation movie in what many are lauding as an overdue break from Hollywood clichés of Arabs and Arab culture.
The movie opened in the United States to generally good reviews from critics and audiences.
“Dreamy children will probably be fascinated and in the process they’ll see a world of Middle Eastern culture seldom shown in films,” said critic Farran Nehme in the New York Post.
“Gibran’s little life lessons have been turned into 3-minute haiku by different animators and spread across the film. Each one soars, even if the plot holding them together is frustratingly Disneyish,” said Joe McGovern of Entertainment Weekly.
The 96-minute film does not come close to the usual multimillion-dollar budgets of a Hollywood movie but the privately funded project has been a labour of love for Lebanese-Mexican-American superstar Salma Hayek.
“In my very long career I haven’t been able to find an Arabic role to play,” Hayek, 48, said at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 while promoting The Prophet. “This is a love letter to this part of my heritage.”
Critics complain that Hollywood has long depicted Arabs and their culture through a narrow and biased lens. The American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee (ADC) published a study entitled 100 Years of Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim Stereotyping in which author Mazin Qumsiyeh coined the term the “three B syndrome.” This refers to Hollywood’s tendency to reduce Arabs to billionaires, bombers or belly dancers.
But not in The Prophet, which begins with a poet, Mustafa, about to be set free after being imprisoned for writing subversive verse. Mustafa waxes philosophically throughout the movie as he recites Gibran’s poems to a backdrop of stunning graphics and musical score by Yo- Yo Ma and other composers. In the process, the poet inspires a mute girl to find her words, much to the delight of her mother and the rest of the village.
Putting the movie together was no easy feat. Hayek and her producing partners spent eight years negotiating for the rights to the book, which Gibran bequeathed to his ancestral village of Bsharri, Lebanon. There, Hayek found several dozen factions with whom her team had to negotiate. Then there was the issue of funding since the usual Los Angeles producers turned down the project. Nothing about the script could compete with Hollywood’s special-effects-heavy mega-productions that target a wide audience, so Hayek had to secure private funding.
Even the directorial process unfolded in an unconventional way with nearly a dozen directors each creating a segment to reflect Gibran’s featured poems and themes, such as love, freedom and children.
One of the directors is Mohammed Harib, creator of the popular Emirati Arabic-language animated series Freej. Roger Allers, director of the international blockbuster The Lion King, weaved the various sections together into one narrative, delivered by the wordy poet character of Mustafa, voiced by Irish actor Liam Neeson.
At the August 21st opening at the Landmark Theatre in Washington, the matinee showing was half full. The audience appeared to be a mix of viewers, some of them wearing the hijab.
“Wallahi, it was so beautiful. I love Khalil Gibran and I’m so glad I came. It’s something to make us proud,” said a viewer who gave her name as Suad.
Others less familiar with Arab culture and Gibran’s work voiced similar sentiments.
“Many Americans believe they have little to learn from the Middle East and its culture and traditions but that dance scene I thought was really pretty powerful,” said Francis Flavin, a historian living in Washington.
He was referring to a scene of a couple dancing romantically before being separated by anonymous strangers, only to reunite again in love.
“It speaks to contemporary life in America. It speaks to the future as well as the past,” he said.