Celebrating the life and work of Director Moustapha Akkad

With the re-release of the iconic and controversial film The Message in the Arab world we take a closer look at the revolutionary Syrian director and producer with these five facts

Syrian filmmaker Moustapha Akkad helped define the genre of horror as well revolutionize how Islamic history was depicted on film.

by Shereen Hafidh

Culture 17 June 2018

Syrian-born filmmaker Moustapha Akkad is a legendary figure in international cinema. As a film producer and director, his greatest legacies included fearlessly diving into issues in his films ranging from the origins of Islam and Arab revolt to million-dollar grossing box office horror films.

Akkad artist didn’t shy from controversy and was arguably ahead of his time. His most controversial film, The Message, which depicts the life of the Prophet Muhammad was filmed in Arabic and English and recently made its first-ever cinema screening in the Arab world during the following Eid Al-Fitr weekend. Most notably it was the first Arabic film to hit Saudi Arabia’s new cinemas. Ironically the once controversial film which was banned in many Arab countries the 1970’s is today educating and celebrating a historic figure in Islam.

Given the polarizing views and the public discourse around Arabs and Islam, Moustapha Akkad’s The Message can help start a more truthful and open dialogue. To celebrate the release of his legendary film in the Arab world, here are some interesting facts about the iconic filmmaker.

A Quran, $200 and a Dream

Moustapha Akkad on the set of Lion of the Winter, 1981

Following Syrian independence from French colonial rule in 1946, Akkad left his home in Aleppo to the United States after securing a place at the University of California at Los Angeles to begin his studies in film direction and production. The Syrian-born director has notably recalled that his father gave him $200 and a copy of the Quran to begin his journey. Perhaps Akkad is the Arab embodiment of the so-called ‘American Dream’, leaving his home to chase his dreams of becoming an internationally-acclaimed film director.

The Message backlash 

Moustapha Akkad with actor Anthony Quinn on set during the filming of The Message

Akkad’s iconic film, The Message, is a historical drama film depicting the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the early years of Islam. Despite close consultation with Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar University during production of the film and receiving a nomination for Best Original Score in the 50th Academy Awards, Akkad attracted severe criticism for allegedly violating Islamic law for portraying the Prophet, even though his voice is never heard and image is never seen in the film. Following rejection by the Muslim World League in Saudi Arabia, many of its supporters withdrew their support. In the US, The Message, was argued to be sacrilegious by members of the Nation of Islam, leading to a hostage crisis and shooting in three screening locations in Washington D.C. Following immense criticism, neither the English nor Arabic version were screened in the Arab world. Akkad expressed his intent in creating a conversation about Islam between the East and West that did not involve politics or bigotry as he told The Washington Post during the film’s release, ‘Being a Muslim myself who lived in the West, I felt that it was my obligation, my duty, to tell the truth about Islam.’

Akkad and Halloween

Akkad with actress Jamie lee Curtis

Alongside American director John Carpenter and actress Jamie Lee Curtis, Akkad produced the first eight movies of the Halloween franchise, featuring the fictional serial killer Michael Myers who murders his sister and is admitted to a sanatorium. The first film which was released in 1978 had a low budget of $325,000, in which Akkad himself financed $300,000. Worldwide box office revenue for the film amounted to a staggering $70,000,000. Through his work, Malek Akkad, Moustapha Akkad’s son, has carried on his father’s legacy in co-producing the latest two Halloween films, and the upcoming version in October 2018.

Watch Mustapha Akkad Discuss Halloween

Lion of the Desert

In 1981, Akkad returned to depicting the Islamic world but this time with a different lens. The historical action film, Lion of the Desert, starring legendary Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn, examines the anti-colonial struggle in Libya against Italian conquest led by former fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Akkad depicted the efforts of Omar Mukhtar, an iconic figure of resistance against Western invasion in the Arab world. As the story unfolds, Akkad reveals the horrific realities of European conquest through concentration camps, unlawful killings, and Mukhtar’s public execution. Until former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi’s first visit to Italy in 2009, the film was censored by Italian authorities in 1982 as according to then Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, it was ‘damaging to the honor of the army.’

Tragic Loss

Mourners carry the coffin Moustapha Akkad in Aleppo, Syria.

In November 2005, Akkad and his daughter, Rima Akkad Monla, were victims of one of Jordan’s worst terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda. The triple explosion which targeted the Grand Hyatt Hotel, in which Akkad and his daughter were located, the Radisson SAS Hotel, and the Days Inn killed 60 people and injured 115 others. At the family’s burial, Zuher Akkad, Moustapha Akkad’s brother, linked the unfortunate paradox between the filmmaker’s legacy and cause of death as he stated, ‘They killed the biggest defender of Islam, they killed him under the name of Islam, this is strange.’ Former Syrian Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Otari recognised Akkad’s legacy in the Arab world as he stated, ‘The will of God is that we miss this important human who elevated the name of Syria, of Arabs and of Islam.’

Shereen Hafidh is a Canadian-Iraqi studying politics, philosophy and law in King’s College, London. She is interested in humanitarian issues within the Middle East and a passion for to bring attention to the culture and beauty of the Arab world.

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