Showcase becomes latest chain to pull 'blasphemous' The Lady Of Heaven

Showcase becomes latest chain to pull ‘blasphemous’ Islamic history film The Lady Of Heaven from cinemas after furious backlash from Muslim protestors – but defiant Vue refuses to stop screenings

  • EXCLUSIVE: Showcase has joined Cineworld in pulling The Lady Of Heaven from its screens after protests  
  • It is billed as depicting the life of Lady Fatima, who is one of the daughters of the Prophet Muhammad
  • Protesters have gathered outside cinemas in Sheffield, Bolton and Birmingham that were showing the film 

A second cinema chain has joined Cineworld in pulling a film about Islam and the daughter of the Prophet Muhammed from its screens after complaints it is blasphemous, MailOnline can reveal. 

Showcase was due to show the movie but is no longer advertising any screenings. When MailOnline contacted one of its cinemas to ask for viewing times an operator said it was no longer being screened. 

Vue is defiantly continuing to show the film, saying it ‘takes seriously the responsibilities that come with providing a platform for a wide variety of content’ and believes in showcasing films of interest to diverse communities’. 

Why The Lady Of Heaven so controversial? How film touches on tensions between Sunnis and Shias

Controversial film Lady of Heaven has been banned from some cinemas in the UK after hundreds of Muslims protested against it. Large crowds appeared outside cinemas in Bradford, Bolton, Birmingham and Sheffield in recent days to call for the film to be pulled from theatres.

The film and its creators have been accused of blasphemy for depicting Prophet Muhammad and his daughter Fatima. Most schools of Islam ban any depiction of the prophet as they believe it to be against the spirit of the religion, disrespectful and encouraging of the worship of idols.

The film has also been accused of inciting hatred between different sects in Islam. Created by Shias, it was nonetheless banned in Shia-majority Iran with the government saying it was aimed at dividing Muslims. The Sunni sect, which makes up 90 per cent of the global Muslim population, have accused the film’s creators of deliberately depicting an extremist Shia perspective of Islamic history to create tension.

Sunni Muslims are unhappy at the way that some of Islam’s holiest figures are portrayed in the film, including the prophet’s third wife Aisha and two of his closest companions. Abu Bakr and Omar, who were the first two caliphs and are seen as two of the holiest figures among Sunnis, are depicted as deceitful, conniving and dishonest – characterisation that has caused significant anger among Sunnis.

Another complaint has been about how the companions, and Aisha, were portrayed by black actors, leading to accusations of racism. 5Pillars, an Islamic Media organisation, said: ‘Most Muslims will find the invective against three of the most beloved companions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) shocking and disgusting. But it is also a deeply racist film with all the main negative characters being portrayed by black actors. What’s more, the film directly disrespects the Prophet (pbuh) by showing his face.’

There is also anger at the writer of the film, Sheikh Yasser al-Habib, who is a controversial figure in the Muslim world. A Kuwaiti Shia scholar based in London, he has previously angered Sunni Muslims by calling Aisha, the third wife of the Prophet Muhammad, ‘an enemy of God’. The cleric was previously jailed in Kuwait and had his citizenship stripped. Senior Iranian clerics have described him as a ‘mad man’ and accused him of inflaming tensions between Sunnis and Shia.

Executive producer Malik Shlibak said the film had gone to great lengths not to offend Muslims, adding that he was aware the movie was including characters that are ‘very holy for close to two billion people’. 

Hundreds of demonstrators have turned out in Bradford, Bolton, Birmingham and Sheffield in recent days to protest against venues showing The Lady of Heaven.

The £12million movie was released in the UK over the Jubilee weekend but was pulled by Cineworld from all its branches after staff faced crowds of protesters demanding it was removed from circulation.

The movie’s executive producer, Malik Shlibak, called the decision to pull it ‘unacceptable’ and accused the chain of ‘bowing down to radical extremists’. 

And film fans who watched The Lady of Heaven in London called on cinemas that have pulled it to have a re-think.

NHS worker Toqeer Abbas, 47, who watched the film at Vue Cinema in Shepherd’s Bush, south west London, said: ‘I do not agree with the protests. I think it is sad people have called for it to be banned. Most of those people haven’t watched it.

‘It is sad that cinemas are not showing it as that allows for any other viewpoint to be restricted. There are certain people that we know that have been against it but this is a conservative view.

‘If you shut down dialogue you have nothing. You have a world of ignorance. This film creates a talking point. You don’t have to believe it and if you don’t you should do your own research.

‘Why would you want to ban it? What’s the reason for it?

‘It’s a free country and whatever happens people will find a way to see it but why can’t we come here and spend time with our families and chat about it afterwards.

‘Talking creates tolerance while shutting things down, no matter how difficult, creates intolerance.’

Mr Abbas from south London added: ‘Some of it was difficult to watch visually. We have heard the stories that were in the film but we have never seen it before. This is the first time we have had a movie showing these events in this way.

‘We’ve never had anything like this before. This is the first time in 1400 years.

‘For me there was too much imagery. It was made too human.

‘We will get in the car and have more conversations about it. It’s a talking point and I think it has a positive message.’

One cinema-goer said: ‘I think the protests are ridiculous. Calling for the movie to be banned is shutting down debate and dialogue.

‘Everyone should be allowed to see the film. Although I must say it was a little long and boring at times.’

A Muslim woman, who is originally from Lebanon who watched the film on her own, said: ‘It was a nice movie.I liked it. It had a positive message.

‘People who have been protesting have a different opinion. We don’t need to do that. We are all Muslim. I would not want to see it banned from the cinema.’

Another man who watched the film but asked not to be named said: ‘I think people should at least see the film before passing judgment.  

Cinemas have seen protests from Muslims claiming the film The Lady of Heaven is ‘blasphemous’. Pictured: Birmingham

Some cinemas made the decision to pull the film from theatres following the backlash. Pictured: Cineworld in Birmingham

Protesters gathered at cinemas to voice opposition to the Lady of Heaven, which was officially released in the UK on June 3

Cineworld has said it has cancelled all showings of the film nationwide ‘to ensure the safety of our staff and customers’. Pictured: A crowd of protesters gathered outside the Cineworld in Birmingham on Sunday, June 5, to protest the film’s release

‘I only came to see what all the fuss was about. It’s a low budget movie and there were not many people watching it.

‘If anything, any protests and calls for the film to be banned will have the reverse effect with more people going to see it.’

In contrast to large scale demonstrations, film-goers who watched the movie in an auditorium, which was half full, were able to do so without having to run the gauntlet from protesters.

Cineworld confirmed it had pulled the film to ‘ensure the safety of staff and customers’ after outcry from protesters who picketed movie theatres and branded it ‘blasphemous’. Vue, meanwhile, is still listed as showing the film in a number of its London branches tonight.

Made in Britain for £12million, the film opens with the invasion of Iraq by ISIS and features a graphic jihadist murder, before telling the story of Lady Fatima, one of the daughters of the founder of Islam.

Islamic tradition forbids the direct portrayal of religious figures, with previous depictions of prophets leading to protests and even murders amid accusations of blasphemy. 

Director Eli King depicts Fatima as a faceless character, shrouded by a black veil to avoid doing this.

But protesters have accused the filmmakers of inaccurately depicting religious history and negatively portraying three of Islam’s most important figures.

Left to right: Producer Hussein Ashmere, Mehpe Al Hussaini, executive producer Jawad Salah and executive producer Malik Shlibak from Enlightened Kingdom attend the premier of The Lady of Heaven at the Cannes Film Festival last year

Pictured: A movie poster for The Lady of Heaven, which has been pulled from cinemas in the UK after days of protests

A video from the weekend appears to show a manager at one cinema addressing a crowd confirming the film has been pulled, prompting cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’. 

The people behind The Lady of Heaven

Eli King 

The director of the film, Eli King has no previous movie credits to his name.

He has not done any interviews prior to the film’s release, and keeps an under the radar profile. 

Producer Malik Shlibak said they landed on King after meeting with a lot of directors. 

He told Deadline: ‘The majority of the British ones I would say, many of them were very interested, but felt the subject may have been too complex, but we were very lucky at the end.’

Malik Shlibak 

Executive producer Malik Shlibak

Based in London, the executive producer has hit back at criticism and accused cinemas of caving to ‘extremists’ by pulling the film.

On Twitter he wrote: ‘While I vehemently disagree with what these protestors stand for (death of free speech), I wholeheartedly thank them for the free publicity, we’re already seeing an absolute flood of new audience who had never heard of our film.’

Speaking last year he said the film had gone to great lengths not to offend Muslims, adding that he was aware the movie was including characters that are ‘very holy for close to two billion people’.

Hussein Ashmere

Producer Hussein Ashmere

One of the producers on the film, Ashmere previously said he hoped the film would educate audiences. 

Speaking to Deadline last year, he said while it was ‘an emotional film’ it would also be informative for people unfamiliar with the story of Lady Fatima. 

‘It’s all factually correct, so this is one thing I want to reiterate,’ he said. 

‘We spent meticulous time on this particular subject. We wanted to make sure we wrapped this up very well.’

Sheikh al-Habib 

Sheikh Yasser al-Habib

The film’s writer, Sheikh Yasser al-Habib is a Kuwaiti Shia scholar based in London.

He was imprisoned in the Middle Eastern country before being granted asylum in the UK.

He has previously angered Sunni Muslims by calling Aisha, the third wife of the Prophet Muhammad, ‘an enemy of God’. 

The film’s producer Malik Shlibak described him as ‘a brilliant mind, an intellectual, an academic, a scholar, a historian’.

The film features former Coronation Street actor Ray Fearon and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival last year, but was only released in the UK for the first time on June 3, this year.  

John Stephenson, who directed the 1999 film Animal Farm and 2004 movie Five Children and It, acted as a creative consultant.

And other critics have expressed anger that the negative characters were portrayed by black actors, rather than white, which they say ‘stems from the racial bias against darker skinned people’.

Those who came out to protest screenings on Monday said they were ‘offended’ by the film and the way it illustrated the life of revered religious figures.

One protester in Bradford, West Yorkshire, said: ‘We are very offended. We have a right not to be insulted.

‘You talk about freedom of speech but where does your freedom of speech go when it goes to criticising your policies, when it goes to making critical analysis of your version of history.

‘You have no right to tell us our history. We will not let this film go on further.’

Others carried signs saying: ‘It’s not ok to offend 1.8 billion #handsoffoursuperheroes’ and ‘Stop the screening’, while using megaphones to get across their message.

In Bolton, the local chairman of the Council of Mosques, Asif Patel, wrote a letter to his local branch of Cineworld, where he called the film ‘blasphemous’.

He said: ‘You may well be aware of the recently released film ‘Lady of Heaven’ which has caused much distress to Muslims across the globe.

‘It is underpinned with a sectarian ideology and is blasphemous in nature to the Muslim community.

‘It grossly disrespects the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in many ways and is deeply disturbing to every Muslim.

‘It also misrepresents orthodox historical narratives and disrespects the most esteemed individuals of Islamic history.

‘The storyline begs the question to what extent the producers had considered the huge impact of this film upon the Muslim community and notions of sacredness dearly held by them.’

‘In Bolton, we are a very diverse community and are very respectful of each other’s culture and honour on community cohesion.’

A spokesperson from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) called for ‘respectful dialogue’ between protesters and the film supporters.

They said: ‘The MCB, which proudly represents affiliates from across the different schools of thought in our faith, supports those scholars and leaders who are advocating for greater unity and for the common good, as commanded by our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him).

‘The MCB has always advocated for respectful dialogue of intra-faith relations.

‘There are some – including many of this film’s supporters or those engaging in sectarianism in their response – whose primary goal is to fuel hatred.

‘We must not let them succeed.’ 

But executive producer of the film Mr Shlibak called the decision to pull the film by the cinema chain ‘unacceptable’.

He said: ‘We think that the protests have brought a lot of newfound attention to the film that did not exist before from people who hadn’t heard about the film, and we are okay with the fact that people protest.

‘But I believe it’s actually unacceptable in this country what they are calling for – that is the removal of this film from the cinemas due to them being offended.

‘That is something quite silly, because everyone has the ability to share their thoughts and enact their freedom of speech.

‘I genuinely believe from all sides, from the cinema, perhaps from the Muslim Council of Britain, that there is this succumbing and bowing down to these radical extremists and their demands.

‘I think this is more than The Lady of Heaven as an individual film, this is about our British values and how much these mean to us.

‘These groups have now been given the power to dictate what the British public can and cannot watch at their local cinemas.’

And Claire Fox, who sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Fox of Buckley, tweeted that the decision to cancel the screening showed the ‘creep of extra-parliamentary blasphemy law’ was now censoring film.

She wrote: ‘Same ‘I Find that Offensive’ cancel culture arguments now being used far beyond campus activism. Disastrous for the arts, dangerous for free speech, a lesson to those who argue identity politics are no threat to democracy.’

Video on social media appears to show the manager of one cinema addressing a crowd of protesters gathered outside

Executive producer Malik Shlibak, pictured here at the Cannes Film Festival last year, blasted the decision to drop the film

Meanwhile, a petition to get the film removed from all UK cinemas has been signed by almost 120,000 people. 

In a statement Cineworld confirmed it was pulling the film from all venues to ‘ensure the safety’ of staff.

A spokesman said: ‘Due to recent incidents related to screenings of The Lady of Heaven, we have made the decision to cancel upcoming screenings of the film nationwide to ensure the safety of our staff and customers.’

Vue, which still has screenings for the movie listed on its website, refused to confirm whether the film had been pulled from any of its cinemas. 

A spokesperson for Vue said: ‘Vue takes seriously the responsibilities that come with providing a platform for a wide variety of content and believes in showcasing films of interest to diverse communities across the UK.

‘Vue will only show a film once the BBFC (the independent British Board of Film Classification) has assessed and rated a film. The Lady of Heaven has been BBFC accredited and is on show in a number of our cinemas.

‘Decisions about how long a film remains on show are taken on a site-by-site basis and based on a variety of commercial and operational factors.’

MailOnline has contacted Showcase for comment.  

A lukewarm reaction: What the film critics have said

While the movie has prompted a strong response from Muslims, the critics have had a more lukewarm reaction to it. 

In its two-star review, The Guardian said while production values and sets look good, ‘half-baked performances’ and a lack of ‘poetic flair’ drag it down.

The review adds: ‘For a film that aims to promote religious diversity and freedom of thought, its metronomic alternation between time frames, narrative slavishness and laughable coda have a suffocating sense of orthodoxy.’

The Irish Times reacted slightly more warmly, giving it a three-star review, describing it as ‘rough around the edges throughout’, but ‘made with admirable gusto’.

It adds: ‘The Lady of Heaven is something else altogether. A British independent release, directed by Eli King, it is much concerned with the story of Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, but also takes in wider first millennium history and some contemporary traumas.

‘It is made with respect. It has educational value. But the film-makers, working with a modest budget, have made sure to include much head-splitting action.’

The New York Times said the film is ‘appropriately spectacular’, but criticised the ‘shoddy script and an overwhelming reliance on cliches’ that make it feel cheap.

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