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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cartoon Looks to Make a Prophet

MAKHACHKALA, Dagestan — How do you make a movie about someone whose face you are forbidden to portray?

This may sound like a children's riddle. But, in fact, it is the dilemma under consideration by three Dagestani businessmen who have launched a grandiose plan to produce the first feature-length animated film about the Prophet Mohammed.

"Two years ago we were walking in Moscow and discussing the poor quality of some Arab cartoons we had just watched on video. Suddenly the idea of our own cartoon about the Prophet Mohammed dawned on us," Magomed Magomedov, a 37-year-old historian and the project's general producer, recalled Wednesday in an interview in Makhachkala.

"As a Moslem, I don't believe this happened to us accidentally," he added.

According to Islamic doctrine, mankind knew 40,000 prophets, but only six of them played a key role in shaping human civilization. Magomedov and his associates, historian Vali Valiyev and lawyer Akhmed Kadiyev, noticed that Russian television offers a slew of cartoons about the lives and deeds of Judeo-Christian prophets but none about Mohammed.

After two years of pondering and planning, the project's masterminds are finally ready for work to begin at their Moscow-based cartoon production company, Studio Double V. Production of the film — whose working title is "Rassvet," or Dawn — is set to begin in Moscow this September and estimated to last 1 1/2 years.

But before the studio could get to work, the project had to be approved by the authoritative Islamic institutions — most importantly, to settle the issue of portraying a character whose face cannot be shown.

"This is the most sensitive issue in the whole venture," Magomedov said. "Islam imposes a ban on depicting human faces. However, there are numerous examples when artists from the Islamic world created graphic images of historical figures. I've seen old Iranian prints depicting the prophet with his associates. They all have their faces portrayed except Mohammed, whose face is veiled."

In April, Russia's Council of Muftis officially threw its support behind the project. In a letter to Magomedov and his partners, council chairman Mufti Ravil Gainutdin stressed that the cartoon was to be produced under the council's control to ensure its conformance to Islamic canons, and asked Moslems to do what they can to help.

"The Council of Muftis hereby calls on all orthodox Moslems to provide all the assistance in their power to help realize this project," read the April 9 letter, a copy of which was provided by Magomedov.

Magomedov has various ideas about overcoming the challenge of depicting Mohammed.

"We could follow the elegant example of the Hollywood movie about Prophet Mohammed: They told his story from an insider's eye view, setting the camera as if it were his own eyes. A second option is to draw him from behind, thus avoiding showing his face. And the last variant, which we find preferable, is to veil the face of the prophet in our cartoon.

"In any case," Magomedov summed up, "the final decision belongs to the Council of Muftis and to the Islamic University Al-Azhar in Cairo" — one of the world's preeminent authorities on Islamic law and culture.

Dagestan's Spiritual Council of Moslems has praised the cartoon initiative.

Khas-Mohammed-hajji Abubakarov, a member of the council, said: "Moslems of the world have already understood how harmful Western cartoons are for their children. These movies plant pseudo-spiritual and pseudo-moral values alien to Islam."

Tentatively, the movie will be made up of episodes about pre-Islamic Arabia, the birth and youth of the prophet, his divine revelation, his wars with adversaries of Islam and its ultimate triumph in the region. The characters' facial expressions will be designed to allow for dubbing in Russian, English and Arabic.

The project has a tentative budget of $8.4 million — a fraction of the cost of Hollywood blockbusters such as the $40 million "Lion King" or the record-breaking $70 million "Prince of Egypt."

Nonetheless, Magomedov hopes his effort will be on a par with those films.

"We wish, Insha-Allah [if God permits], to shoot a film that won't be second-rate compared to American-made cartoons," he said, adding that the cartoon will try to combine old-fashioned production methods with new technologies to bring down costs while maintaining quality.

The production team is set to include artists from Soyuzmultfilm, Russia's renowned state-owned cartoon studio. Valery Ugarov, a laureate of five international competitions, has been invited to direct, and well-known composer Murad Kazhlayev, who is of Dagestani origin, has been asked to write the music.

Magomedov also said Rustam Ibragimbekov, the screenwriter for some of Nikita Mikhalkov's hits, including Oscar-winner "Burnt by the Sun," agreed to write the screenplay. "When I talked to Ibragimbekov, he said he would take no fee for participating in such a God-pleasing venture, but … only if others would do the same," said Magomedov.

However, Ibragimbekov's assistant, reached by telephone Thursday, was surprised by the inquiry about the cartoon project. "There was a conversation with these people about three or four months ago and Rustam indeed said he is ready to write the script, because he has a high regard for the prophet," said Galina Veryovkina, Ibragimbekov's deputy in his Ibrus production studio. "They said they would be looking for funds and this is no easy feat. Since then, we have not heard a word from them."

But Magomedov seems to be plowing ahead with the project and fund-raising doesn't seem like an insurmountable obstacle to him.

Magomedov declined to be specific, but said that "honest Moslems of the world would donate their money for the project."

According to a trilateral accord between the studio, the Council of Muftis and Moscow-based Vtoroi Bank, the funds would go through the bank and the council will monitor spending.

"We will list all donors in the credits and on the Internet site we are designing, which is due to be open in the near future," Magomedov said.

"What we see as our most important task is telling young viewers about the continuity of the world's main religious traditions," he said. "We all pray to one God, we come from the same Adam and Eve, and we don't have to oppose each other. Regretfully, the lack of this understanding is often demonstrated to us on TV news programs, which tell of religious conflicts all over the word." The Prophet of Islam - His Biography