My drive back from the Toronto International Film Festival cracked open the protective cinema dome that I had been inhabiting for almost a week, and it did so with a vengeance. Two hours of NPR at the tail end of the trip rudely awakened me to the news of the attacks on the Libyan embassy that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the first such instance since the late 1970s. Without further access to additional reports or Internet access, my knowledge of the reason behind the incident was limited to “reactions to an anti-Islamic film.” Here I was, coming home from a film festival and a film had provoked a tragic and fatal reaction.
Not to simplify or minimize the situation, but it felt like the attacks, which have escalated and spread viciously throughout the Middle East, were taking the shape and form of something akin to a negative blogosphere review that had gone viral in the reactionary/revolutionary sphere. Even in the States, on the campaign trail, the film has sparked calls of outrage that I find curious because I would assume, in most cases, such reactions have come from people who may not have ever seen the clip on YouTube.
As a film critic, I feel, first and foremost, someone needs to weigh in with the fact that Innocence of Islam is not a film. The 13-plus minute video clip is purported to be a trailer for a feature film, but it plays like the poorly conceived (and quite humorless) attempt at religious mockery that it is. The slap dash story offers a synopsis of the life and times of the prophet Mohammed, rendering him as little more than a sexually depraved bastard with blood and personal gain dominating any and all thought in his pathetic little mind. Surrounded by mindless sycophants waving their swords in the air and turning a blind eye to any and all hypocrisy in his words and deeds, the prophet faces only minimal challenges to his authority from the women he beds (and discards) at whim.
Barely cartoonish in both narrative content and production values, the clip has attracted more than 10 million views solely due to the violence it has triggered, but I wonder if perspective has been lost for good, on a global scale and what that means for humanity. Muslims need to feel that their outrage at the treatment of their prophet is justified, while Western society clings to the notion that there is a free speech concern at stake. The extremists on either side eagerly fall on their swords to prove what they believe to be a critical point, with rage as the common language of these would-be critics.
More than 20 years ago, Christians in the U.S., particularly here in the Queen City, waged a war on two fronts against a perceived assault on the image of Christ and the very heart of family values. There was the release of Martin Scorsese’s controversial film, The Last Temptation of Christ, which many believers feared would, with its depiction of Jesus considering the life he might lead if he stepped down off the Cross, cause some of the faithful to question His divinity. Then there was the traveling exhibition — Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, featuring the Andres Serrano photograph “Piss Christ” — which sparked a heated legal battle in Cincinnati on the eve of its run.
At that time, I was years away from my role as a cultural critic, but likely still more informed than the average member of the public, certainly more philosophically inclined. I remember scoffing at the protectorate of the religious right who wanted to keep The Last Temptation out of theaters, mainly because so many of that group had not even watched the film they were protesting. Scorsese’s film made real the humanity of Christ, a key element of the New Testament that sometimes gets glossed over, especially by Christian fundamentalists. I would argue that “Piss Christ,” by merging the Cross and bodily fluid, seeks to make the same connection to the man versus the divine.
Here, the battles were fought with words, protests in the streets and across the airwaves, and in court. Unfortunately, today, in the Middle East, the conflict has escalated and innocent people with no obvious or direct link to the injurious clip are being killed.
The same question bedevils us: Do our prophets need such protection? Is God so helpless that He requires a hapless mob of would-be warriors to defend His honor from a video clip on YouTube with worse production values than the iPhone shorts of my youngest daughter and her friends? Anyone with half a brain could see this is little more than sticks and stones territory. The reaction to The Innocence of Islam deserves a failing grade because it lays bare the reality of the increasing hopelessness of humanity.
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