A UK cinema chain has cancelled all screenings of a “blasphemous” film about the daughter of the prophet Muhammad after branches were picketed by Muslim activists.
Cineworld said it took the decision to cancel all showings of The Lady of Heaven to “ensure the safety of our staff and customers”.
The cancellation was criticised by a House of Lords peer as being “disastrous for the arts, dangerous for free speech”.
The film’s producer defended the rights of the protesters to express their displeasure but said it was “silly” and against British values for the film to be pulled completely.
A video circulating online showed the manager of Sheffield Cineworld telling protesters that Sunday night’s screening had been cancelled, to cries of “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).
5Pillars, a Muslim news site, tweeted a photo of what it said was “200 Muslims protesting against sectarian hate film Lady of Heaven outside Cineworld in Broad Street, Birmingham” on Sunday.
Lady of Heaven, released last Friday in the UK, claims to be the first film to put the “face” of the prophet Muhammad on screen.
But as the Guardian’s two-star review pointed out: “No single actor is credited with playing him, or any of the other holy figures in his entourage. And, as a nervous initial disclaimer points out, their faces, often shown in dazzling sunbursts, are computer-generated. Presumably, this is enough to placate Islam’s prohibition on visual representation of the prophetThe film-makers are Shia, a branch of Islam that has sometimes been observed as more lenient on the issue, and the film is written by Sheikh al-Habib, the spiritual leader of The Mahdi Servants Union.”
A screening in Bolton was cancelled after 100 protesters turned up at the local Cineworld branch. The chair of the Bolton Council of Mosques had urged the cancellation of the screening, saying the film was “underpinned with a sectarian ideology and is blasphemous in nature to the Muslim community”.
More than 117,000 people have signed a petition to try to get the film removed from all UK cinemas.
A spokesperson from Cineworld 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.”
Cineworld was due to screen the film in Bradford, Birmingham, Bolton, London (Ilford and O2 Greenwich), Glasgow Silverburn, Milton Keynes, Sheffield and Wolverhampton.
Vue, a rival cinema chain, still had screenings listed for London and the south-east on Tuesday. Vue did not respond to claims it had pulled the film from selected cinemas but a spokesperson 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.”
The 5Pillars review of the film was headlined: “Lady of Heaven: pure, unadulterated sectarian filth.”
Its reviewer complained that the film compared three of the prophet’s closest companions to Isis.
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.”
Malik Shlibak, executive producer of the film, told the Guardian cinemas should “stand up and defend their right to show films that people want to see”.
“I think cinemas are crumbling to the pressure, and taking these decisions to quell the noise,” he said, adding the production company had received dozens of messages from people who were trying to book tickets to see the film but not being able to.
“This is an artistic endeavour talking about and elaborating on history and religion, which always has a plethora of different takes and interpretations. That’s normal and healthy. We welcome this and we welcome people to express themselves, whether they’re for or against the film,” he said.
“What we don’t support, and what we vehemently stand against, is what they’re trying to do, which is to censor others and dictate what we can and cannot watch in UK cinemas.
“They have no right to do so and it’s something very dangerous. The general population really need to be aware of this and stand up to this, because it is infringing and putting in danger their freedom of speech.”
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A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel was released uncut in the UK in 1971, but after sensational news reports linked the film to murder cases, a number of local councils refused permission for cinemas to show it. In 1973, Kubrick requested that Warner Bros, the film’s distributors, withdraw the film permanently in the UK, and it was not legally shown until after Kubrick’s death in 1999.
Salo or 120 Days of Sodom
The final film by Italian auteur Pier Paolo Pasolini – an adaptation of Marquis de Sade, set during the final days of Mussolini’s fascist regime – was due for release in 1975, but was refused a certificate on the grounds of “gross indecency”. Legal regulations allowed a cut version of film to be shown at members clubs from 1977 onwards, although the first cinema to show it, in London’s Soho, was quickly raided by the police. It was finally given an 18 certificate by the BBFC (renamed the British Board of Film Classification in 1984) in 2000.
The Life of Brian
Arguably the most notorious censorship row in the UK surrounded the Monty Python team’s satire on Christianity, which was released in 1979 with an AA certificate (equivalent to a 15). Religious campaigners (led by Mary Whitehouse’s Festival of Light) accused the film of blasphemy, leading to the celebrated TV discussion between the Python team and the film’s opponents. A number of local councils raised the rating to X, and a handful banned the film entirely.
The Driller Killer
The “video nasty” panic of the early 80s saw the prosecution of a string of horror films, mostly after they became available on VHS. Abel Ferrara wrote and directed this graphic slasher film, which was released on video in 1982 and became one of around 35 placed on the director of public prosecution’s list of banned films once the Video Recordings Act was passed in 1984. It achieved a legal video release in 1999.
David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel (focusing on the erotic appeal of car wrecks) was the subject of a pre-release campaign to ban it by a number of tabloid newspapers, but the BBFC passed it uncut with an 18 certificate. However, Westminster council refused permission, meaning that most West End cinemas were unable to show it. However, the council for its neighbouring London borough, Camden, did not follow suit, allowing many venues to screen it.
• This article was amended on 10 June 2022 to add extra information clarifying the details of the film-makers and writer of Lady of Heaven.