Recent animated epics from the Middle East have shown the potential of films based on Islamic stories but the lack of investment and talent are hindering growth of this promising sector.
FACT: Only two animated feature films based on Islamic history and culture were released in the last five years.
The Journey, produced by Japan’s Toei Animation and Saudi Arabia’s Manga Productions and released in June 2021, tells the story of Aws and the people of Mecca, who are forced to take up arms to liberate themselves and their city from enslavement.
The movie tapped into a new domain, fusing the Saudi and Japanese cultures to create the first-ever Arabic anime feature.
The Journey came out three years after the international release of Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, an award-winning animated adventure film about the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, a companion of the Prophet who was born a slave and became the first muezzin. Produced by Dubai-based Barajoun Entertainment and available on Netflix since early 2019, it was the UAE’s first animated feature.
POTENTIAL OF ISLAMIC ANIMATED MOVIES
Navid Akhtar, founder and CEO of UK-based Alchemiya, the most established video streaming platform for Islamic and Muslim-focused television, believes there is pent-up demand for animated movies.
“If you look to the Manga / Anime industry in Japan and animation from Korea and the U.S., there is a global appetite for quality stories. Islamic animated movies are not in the picture as many Muslims are watching Western content and don't really understand what is going on,” said Akhtar.
“Educated, culturally aware Muslims, realise that our children's minds are being bombarded with messages that promote alternative lifestyles, values, and are contrary to Muslim identity. If we don't provide our children with an alternative, we cannot blame them if they see the world as shown on Netflix, as the best way to live,” he added.
Dubai-based director and screenwriter Khurram H. Alavi, who directed Bilal with co-director and producer Ayman Jamal, said Islamic stories, current or historic, carry a formidable global appeal.
“I've experienced that firsthand. They're fresh, they're different, and they add a much-needed positive dimension to the identity of Muslims around the world. What could be better than beginning this movement in the Middle East?” he said.
In the age of streaming platforms and saturated content, creating visual media that explores Islamic stories would serve as a worthy companion piece to the existing literary material already out there.
The sector needs investors, according to Alavi.
“I would love to see all of the stories we have grown up with visualized as relatable, awe-inspiring animated features and series. Tales from the Quran and those from the different parts of the world where Islam exists, realized in the genres of action, adventure, drama, even horror,” Alavi told Salaam Gateway.
Whether this could happen anytime in the future is another question.
Both Bilal and The Journey were critically acclaimed, and both were on par with international counterparts. But they were exceptions as they had tremendous budgets which production houses typically cannot afford.
The Journey was backed by a government entity as Manga Productions is a subsidiary of Misk Foundation, an organization established by Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in 2011 to invest in empowering Saudi Arabia’s youth in different fields, including culture and creative arts.
Bilal, on the other hand, was produced by a private company in Dubai with a budget of $30 million as it was meant to be distributed globally.
Apart from these two movies, animated features based on Islamic stories that are at the same scale have been few and far between.
“If you realistically observe the trends, two animated features, each catered for a different space, in five years isn't enough for an industry to spark any kind of profound growth. So, therein lies the real challenge,” said Alavi.
Alchemiya has hundreds of titles ranging from movies, drama series, and documentaries, to children’s programmes and TV shows, but animated films account for only a small fraction.
One of the latest animated additions on Alchemiya is Aya and Yusuf, a ten-episode English cartoon by Saudi Arabia-based Syrian entrepreneur Sara Sawaf which came out in June 2020. The 2D animated series is also on Amazon Prime.
“We select titles very carefully for Alchemiya and at the top of our shopping list are titles which display a high level of creative style and at the same time offer a thoughtful storyline. Very little has been produced when you take this into consideration and many of the producers we work with are independent and outside of the established TV industry,” said Akhtar.
“We would like to offer a much wider selection but our priority is to support creative talent rather than have thousands of titles that replicate what has been done by Disney.”
COSTLY PRODUCTION, FEW INVESTORS
There are a few reasons why we’re not seeing more Islamic animated films. One has to do with the difficulty of finding investors.
“Unfortunately, investors in the region don’t have the same adventurous mindset. Having worked in the Middle East for the last nine years, I've seen many stories disappear in the process,” said Alavi.
“The Muslim community needs to develop credible platforms that fund the development and production of animated content instead of diminishing the process. Push for international quality, for boldness and originality. And back it up with proper funding,” he said.
A similar sentiment was shared by Michael Milo, CEO and founder of Muslim Kids TV, who recently told Salaam Gateway that many Muslim venture capitalists are not seeing the potential in Islamic content. The Canada-based streaming platform managed to expand in more than 60 countries since it started in 2014, and with more than 10,000 videos, games, e-books, and DIY content, it aims to be the “Disney of the Muslim World”.
Abdulaziz Othman, CEO of Saudi Arabia-based Zeez Animation, told Salaam Gateway animated films are costly to make, and competition is high, which makes them risky to investors.
But this hasn’t deterred him. Zeez plans to launch Al-Saddad, an animated series of 10 episodes, early next year. The series tells the story of a superhero from Saudi Arabia who’s faced with a situation where he must live up to the expectations of those around him until death.
“The risk is huge to produce [animation] and it’s very costly. That’s why many of the large, animated movie projects have commercial goals. Competition is fierce as well. Any animated movie from the region would be competing with the biggest players, such as Disney Pictures and DreamWorks. Your movie will be compared to them whether you like it or not. Which one will you choose as an audience?” he asked.
Finding the initial capital investment is also not easy when production takes a year and a half to two, according to Abbas Saleem Khan, CEO of Optera Digital, a Pakistan-based transmedia company focusing on AR/VR, holographics, gamification, gaming, and animation.
Another challenge is the length of time it takes to be skilled in animation. According to Khan, it takes eight to 10 years to learn how to draw and animate.
“Animation is just hard to do; it takes a lot of time to build up the expertise and the skillset. For example, when the first Disney movie came out – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – animation had been in existence for about 15-20 years before they could make an animated film. It took evolution,” Khan told Salaam Gateway.
“Technologically, for a long time we were kind of locked. Creating 2D animation is very hard; you need a large industry to do that. When 3D came out, we were able to suddenly overcome this barrier to entry where you don’t need to draw but you can still animate. That made it easier because then you could skip art school and just go to trade school and get into 3D animation much faster,” said Khan.
Today, 3D animation epic films are becoming easier to jump into as it’s easier to transfer knowledge and develop pipelines. That said, in the Muslim world, there’s little emphasis on art school training and education.
In making The Journey, for instance, Manga Productions invested in Saudi artists by sending young men and women to be trained at Toei Animation studios in Japan, before recruiting them to work on the film.
Iran and Egypt are two of the few countries in the region that have good grassroot arts institutions.
Pakistan, too, has a strong culture of art, although it took a long time for the creative industry to understand there is a market for animation.
The first real animation to come out of Pakistan was Burqa Avenger in 2013. Comprising four seasons, the Emmy-nominated TV series emphasises the importance of girls’ education as well as issues such as equality and discrimination. But it wasn’t until 2015 that the country’s first 3D-animated film, 3 Bahadur, was released.
The year 2018 was a big one for Pakistani animation, with the release of four animated films: Tick Tock, Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor, 3 Bahadur: Rise of Warriors, and Donkey King.
Most of these Muslim-driven films were a success. Burqa Avenger won multiple global accolades. Allahyar was promoted at several international film festivals and won prestigious awards, while Donkey King went on to become the sixth highest grossing animated film in Pakistan’s history and secured theatrical releases in South Korea and Spain.
“When I started out as a game developer, before I became an animator, there were two studios in Pakistan: one in Lahore, one in Islamabad, and six people in each. This means there were 12 jobs in a country of 175 million people,” said Khan.
“Today, there are about 10,000 game developers in Pakistan, more than 100 studios, and they’re all working at various levels. The same thing with animation; it takes a long time to build that capacity and technological understanding,” Khan added.
The Islamic animation market is incredibly untouched, especially in terms of consuming local media, according to Khan.
An animated film is actually a commercial for merchandising and other transmedia products that allow the product to grow, be it action figures, comic books, or t-shirts.
“What most people don’t understand is that Marvel might make a billion dollars off an Avenger film but it’s going to make four or five billion off all merchandising,” said Khan.
“It’s not an animated film, it’s transmedia. Which means you have one story, and you have multiple ways of experiencing it and letting it grow, so that film you saw one time extends to a three-year experience, and subsequent generations can keep on watching it over and over. That’s the vision,” he said.
When it comes to presenting Islamic stories in animation form, it gets tricky. Many Islamic animations have been the subject of controversies and in extreme cases, resulted in fatal attacks.
Earlier this year, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa stating that women in cartoons and animated features must be depicted wearing hijab, a ruling which political activists in the country condemned and called 'toxic'.
According to Egypt’s primary Islamic legislator Dar al-Ifta, it is impermissible in Islam to depict Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and all the other prophets and messengers of God in movies, and that includes presenting, producing, and releasing artworks.
“Of course, there are [rules] we have to follow. For example, we don’t show the prophets generally, but we can convey the message and show the Sahaba (companions of the Prophet). I don’t think this is an issue nowadays as long as you present the story in a good way and inspire the new generation; it’s even celebrated,” said Othman.
Alavi’s experience directing Bilal proved the process is still fraught with challenges.
To appeal to a global audience, the English version of the movie omitted the adhaan (the call to prayer) and referred to Islam as “The Movement” to describe the coming of the new religion.
“The idea of telling an 'animated' story inspired by the life of Bilal Ibn Rabah proved to be a controversial subject for many. As we have seen, most of the Muslim world is quite resistant to visual media based on Islamic history. Bilal would be the only animated feature to have crossed that threshold,” said Alavi.
“Everything from the story to the dialogue, the locations to the props to the costumes, the visual style to the likeness of every character, was a subject of constant debate and conflict. And rightfully so. It was our sheer passion to create this brave new world unlike anything seen before that helped us navigate through all of the hurdles,” Alavi explained.
Islamic attitude towards the depicted physical form can be a problem, according to Khan. Context is difficult to translate, and filmmakers have to make sure the culture they’re addressing understands it.
“It’s a skill and an art and requires a lot of talent and understanding. We need to create more Islamic content, to make it accessible, informative, and entertaining, without bias, and to make it easy to digest for every culture,” said Khan.
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