The Message

On a March day in 1977 three groups of armed men stormed three separate buildings in Washington. They took over 100 hostages and killed a young radio reporter.  They were led by Khalafaa Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, who had broken away from Nation of Islam to form a group called the Hanafi, citing disagreements over leadership and beliefs. After the break a number of his followers were murdered, including a number of his children. Whilst the murderers were caught and punished the belief that they were associated with the Nation of Islam brewed resentment which eventually led to the hostage situation. The demand that the murderers (who were in prison) were handed over to the Hanafi stems from this, but beyond this the demands become less coherant. A meeting with Muhammad Ali was sought, which Ali fairly wisely steered well clear of, and the third demand, and the one which some say sparked the whole situation was that the recently released film ‘Mohammad, Messenger of God’ was banned, it being seen as blasphemous in its depiction of Mohammad. Having watched the film the demand makes less sense, it is very careful to be very clear that Mohammad is not portrayed or heard. The film uses a few devices to get around this issue, characters speak to the camera a lot of the time, and most things Mohammad says are relayed through other people, it results in lots of scenes where people run into rooms with ‘he said!’ on their lips. But all this means that either the empty space which Mohammad inhabits in the film was still too offensive for the hostage takers, or that they had never actually seen the film. Its like the tv interviews when everyone interesting was enjoying video nasties in the 80s :- “they are terrible and will turn our children into crazed killers” ‘have you actually seen these films” “no”. Except here the anger is underscored with murder and religious fervour. The film is interesting in other ways, it was partially funded by Gadaffi and filmed on location in Libya, a claim very few films can make. One assumes this only occured because there seems to have been a genuine desire to make a film which made the story accessible to western audiences with little knowledge of Islam. That said each scene was also shot with Arabic actors to make effectively a separate film. It would be interesting to see if some of the more explanatory narration is left out for an audience which presumably is more familiar with the story. This is a long film, sometimes the American actors jar in a way that wouldnt be tolerated now and some of the fight scenes are quite pedestrian (at one point at supposed 3000 man army is almost certainly about 150 men) but it did a good job of telling the story, and I genuinely feel slightly more informed than before I watched it, even if an awful lot of what went on would need a lot of explaining before I could really say I understood it. The hostage takers were eventually talked into standing down, the negotiators were Muslims who urged the hostage takers to remember some of the central tenets of the their belief, tenets which ironically they would have been reminded of had they gone to see ‘The Message’.

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