Bilal: A New Breed of Hero brings Emirati storytelling to animation

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Feb 1, 2018

Animation, as have all movies and TV shows in the past few decades, has had to evolve its mindset in order to include more diverse voices and more diverse stories. Campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite have tackled more live-action fare, but with this year’s Coco (the incredibly successful Mexico-set Day of the Dead Disney film) and last year’s Moana (a pan-Polynesian island adventure), animation is starting to pick up on what the rest of the industry is moving towards. No film is more interesting in that regard than the upcoming Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, the first-ever animated feature from the United Arab Emirates.

Emirati-produced films are few and far between, with almost all coming out of Dubai. Bilal is no different, but its groundbreaking designation as the first animation from the culture, representing the culture’s history, is potent.

Co-directed by Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal, this production spins a swords-and-sandals take on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah (voiced by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jacob Latimore, and Andre Robinson at various stages of his life), a former slave who was one of the first convert to Islam under the tutelage of Muhammad. Religious animations aren’t new to anyone that’s ever seen Prince of Egypt or a singing Christian vegetable, but this PG-13 story isn’t for kids - even if it may initially seem like it.

There are different expectations from animation in different cultures - think about Japan’s varied anime compared to the West’s primarily child-focused output - and while Bilal’s animation style signals for a more cartoonish, soft take on the tale, its subject matter is never censored.

There’s a lot of violence in this warrior’s tale, with some scenes taking from The Lord of the Rings and 300, especially when battling the villainous Umayya Ibn Khalaf (Ian McShane) with, it appears, an army of ghosts. Slave beatings, swordplay, and slow-motion battles of faith are displayed in surprising detail, which puts the conflict between equality and violence on center stage. That’s something that we’re not used to in our cartoons, but one that might become more commonplace in the UAE animation industry as it comes into its own.

While Iranian, Turkish, and even Palestinian cinema have found international audiences, Emirati film is still burgeoning. The country’s only genre film before this entry was the S.A. Zaidi-helmed Aerials, a 2016 alien invasion film set in Dubai (one of few sci-fi films coming from the Middle East). So Bilal is important not just for its animation, but for its perspective on the fantastic.

Though his writings focus on other, more industry-practiced Middle Eastern countries, University of Connecticut Professor of Sociology Josef Gugler said that “films from the Middle East offer representations at variance with those that predominate in much of Western media.” Think about this: for every Bilal, depicting heroes from the Arabian Peninsula’s vast history, there are twenty action movies with variously vague Middle Easterners set as villains. Rare is it that we see a slave break free, find God, and lead an army - and even rarer, doing it in the deserts of the ancient Middle East. Perspective is important.

“Locally produced stories and images call into question common assumptions about the region’s history, cultures, and people,” says Gugler, showing that this movie and those like it are just as important as something like Black Panther - which will give representation to Africa on the superhero scene. That film finds positive images for its scarcely-shown setting, pushing technological advancement, heroism, and more from a continent whose countries are often ignorantly smushed together.

Bilal, as Gugler notes, has the ability to do some of the same work for UAE, even if its sentiments can feel a bit pan-Middle Eastern. That’s not a bad thing, though. Specificity can be cultural, not solely geographic, which makes Bilal’s focus on an Islamic tale feel representative not just of the UAE, but of many predominantly Muslim countries.

Bilal’s hyper-visual storytelling - not just in its violence, but in its use of complex, multi-layered montage - far outpaces its too-literal dialogue and sometimes confusing script, which is another level of separation from Western animation and another reason why Emirati animation is something to watch.

With less importance placed on things like character introductions or even implied continuity across time, symbolism and tone take precedence. Sometimes a character appears without much explanation, but through his/her appearance, we are expected to understand his allegiances and purpose. However, we are mostly encouraged to blur the line between the real and the supernatural - be it demonic or holy. Peppered with dream sequences, splashed with color, and filled with action, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero’s adventurous tale is a step into the international field of genre storytelling with the one thing genre could always use more of: a new perspective.