PBS’ award-winning Independent Lens series opens its tenth season on October 13th at 10pm with Wham! Bam! Islam!, a documentary about a Kuwaiti psychologist and entrepreneur educated at the Columbia Business School who believed he had a way to help reinforce positive traditional Islamic values in youngsters around the world. What Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa had in mind was a Western style superhero comic book in which a team of superheroes, gathered together from all over the world, each exemplifying one of the 99 attributes of Allah, would join in a struggle against the forces of evil. His aims were both practical and idealistic. The 99, the title he gave his comic, he hoped would create a successful financial venture while providing positive role models for Muslim youth.
The film, directed by Emmy-nominated documentarian Issac Solataroff, follows Al-Mutawa as he pitches his idea and raises $7 million from investors around the world to start up his company. He attracts a creative team that includes a number of ex-Marvel comic veterans to complement the local Muslim staff. They are especially careful to make certain that nothing in the content of the comic violates any of the tenets of Islam; this in the light of some of the violent reaction of Muslims across the world after the publication of offensive cartoons in the Danish press. Al-Mutawa acknowledges that while he too found the cartoons offensive, he nonetheless believed in freedom of speech. Still he understood that even unintentional offensive material in his comic would defeat both his purposes.
Careful consideration had to be given to the costumes of the superheroes. The tight spandex, standard uniform for their Western brothers and sisters, wouldn’t do for the Muslim sensibility. They had to consider whether the women would wear burkhas or veils. They had to be very careful about how they dealt with the application of the divine attributes to human characters. They had to think about the representation of Holy places. While some might consider this censorship, it is clear that this kind of self-censorship is no different from what goes on in the West, even with its freedom of the press. Both financially and idealistically, it would have made little sense to antagonize the very audience you were trying to impress.
In a world where tensions between Muslims and the West seem to dominate the headlines daily, Wham! Bam! Islam! is the kind of film that just might help to create the kind of atmosphere that would encourage greater understanding between the different cultures. Not only does it illustrate how Western popular cultural tropes might not be all that alien to other cultures, but it also demonstrates that central values—tolerance, compassion, understanding—are common to all true believers in all religions. As one of the Bahraini investors in the company’s recapitalization points out, it is hard to beat an investment that will bring in a profit and do some social good at the same time.
The story of The 99’s initial successes, near catastrophes, and eventual rebirth makes for fascinating viewing. Reactions from the comic’s readers vary from eager children thrilled with the characters to college students debating the comic’s orthodoxy, from the Saudis’ unwillingness to license the book for the kingdom to a break dancer’s rant about stultifying traditions. Through it all the dominating figure is the man with a vision, a man unwilling to give up on his goal even when things seem to be falling apart around him. Naif Al-Mutawa may not be a superhero, but as far as this documentary goes, he is hero enough.