DIFF’s most promising tenet is probably its crossroads of new and established regional talent, including lavish nightly parties where participants—ranging from filmmakers to critics to “celebrity” YouTubers—could kibitz over an unending flow of cigarettes and espresso-vodka cocktails. Well before festival’s end, a deal had been put in place for a Hollywood remake of Induced Labor set at the American embassy in Mexico City; while this kind of agreement is surely encouraging for Arab filmmakers, I had to wonder if the original would ever see stateside release. (At DIFF, as at other festival markets, the films exist as capital-C content first and cinema second.) From tipoffs at these gatherings I saw some excellent work that hadn’t been heralded in the West. Sofia Djama’s The Blessed probed the aftermath of the 1992 Algerian civil war as boomer hangover, seeing two well-meaning secular parents come to the bitter realization their teenage son would have a better life studying in Europe. Mahdi Fleifel’s fleet, gripping short film A Drowning Man depicts a refugee who finds himself making a brutal tradeoff in the streets of Athens. And Fadi Baki’s mockumentary Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow uses an improbable gag—a clunky, exquisitely rendered automaton, gifted to Lebanon by Charles de Gaulle—to riff on the impossible postcolonial identity.
On closing night, moviegoers had to choose between two long-time-ago sagas: Star Wars: The Last Jedi or Moustapha Akkad’s 1976 un-biopic of Muhammad, The Message. Starring the ever-reliable Anthony Quinn as Muhammad’s sabre-wielding uncle, Hamza, Akkad’s film is a spiritual journey structured as rousing historical actioner, originally intended to foster understanding and promote a vision of Islam concurrent against colonialism (in the guise of slavery) and sexism. Everything that happens is dictated by Akkad’s refusal to depict Mohammed in any form beyond the impressions he leaves on other people, his cane, or the movement of the feet of his camel. Occasionally the camera occupies his perspective (shades of Dark Passage), and the actors, most of them English thespians wearing tons of makeup, directly address the audience. Maurice Jarre’s eerie, echoing leitmotif for the camera-as-Muhammad adds otherworldly sheen to this bold but inconsistent choice, but people’s ability to take it seriously differed wildly. For me, one late first-person tracking shot of a false idol being knocked to the ground held solemn power akin to the arrival at the Buddhist temple in Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, or the Nazis flanking the Arc de Triomph in Army of Shadows.
Until a documentary coda, The Message interweaves three kinds of shots: those from Mohammad’s perspective, the more conventional ones of respective human performers, and awe-inspiring, unfakeable outdoor battle sequences devoid of dialogue. Without squinting you could notice a small chicken running circles in the foreground as 3,000 troops (borrowed from the armed forces of Muammar Gaddafi) galloping toward Mecca on horse and camelback—an image which was probably too expensive to allow for a second take. The spatial disagreement of these with the conventional dialogue scenes is probably a byproduct of the fact that Akkad shot two different versions of the movie with separate Arabic- and English-speaking casts.
Despite an opening-credits placard explaining the decision not to depict Mohammed, the U.S. release of The Message led in part to the Hanafi siege in D.C., wherein 149 people were held hostage by Hanafi Muslim terrorists who demanded an end to the film’s theatrical run. The release was canceled, and Akkad’s film saw its reputation battered. It’s tragic: Akkad strived to make a Middle-Eastern version of Lawrence of Arabia, and The Message deserves to be as widely known as its companions in the genre of inaccurate and wildly expensive sword-and-sandal actioners, which themselves obviously harkened back to early waves of war and cowboy movies. A 4K restoration undertaken by Akkad’s son (who’s restoring the Arabic-language version as well) made for perverse viewing at a not-packed IMAX amphitheater knowing The Last Jedi, which one could only assume would be a repackaging of a copy of a rip-off of those same tropes, was making its Middle Eastern debut just across the skyscraper-studded Sheikh Zayed mega-freeway.