“Cancel Culture” or Business Sense: UK Cinema Chains Withdraw Controversial Films

By Adrian Pennington | June 9, 2022 7:03 am PDT
Protests Against Lady of Heaven at Cineworld

“With some half-baked performances, and the odd tinge of cockney creeping in, it feels a bit too apparent that the cast hail from closer to Mile End than Medina.” Given such a tepid review (in this case from The Guardian), how could a film seemingly this innocuous become the subject of such cinema controversy?

“The Lady of Heaven” is a GBP £12 million (USD $15 million) British indie produced by Enlightened Kingdom and Hannibal Media which tells the story of Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad. It was released nationwide in the United Kingdom on 3 June. Two days later the film was pulled from Cineworld screens and also withdrawn from Showcase Cinemas and some (but not all) Vue cinemas. The chains had bowed to pressure from people accusing the film of “blasphemy.” Over 120,000 people signed petitions for the film to be withdrawn and around 300 protested outside cinemas in Bolton and Birmingham. Cineworld explained it made the decision “to ensure the safety of our staff and customers.”

The Bolton Council of Mosques said the film was “underpinned with a sectarian ideology”. The Muslim Council of Britain, the UK’s largest Muslim umbrella organisation, has described the film as “divisive”. The film is reportedly the first to depict the “face” of the prophet Muhammad on screen. No single actor is credited with playing him and the film includes a disclaimer pointing out that their faces are in fact computer-generated.

Lady of Heaven
A scene from “Lady of Heaven” which tells the story Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad. (Photo: Enlightened Kingdom and Hannibal Media)

But this does not appear to be the main issue. According to the BBC, criticism mainly centres around the way the film’s writer and Shia scholar Yasser Al-Habib “has portrayed prominent revered figures in early Sunni Islam, implying that there are comparisons between their actions with those of the Islamic State group in Iraq.”

Naturally, the sudden decision to withdraw the film has met with cries of censorship from free-speech campaigners and politicians. Health minister Sajid Javid (also former Culture minister) has expressed his concern about “cancel culture” not least because blasphemy is not illegal under UK law.

The film’s executive producer Malik Shlibak claims he has received death threats because of the work pointing out that there were millions of Muslims in the UK, and the protesters did not represent all of their views.

As is the way of such things, the controversy has attracted attention that no amount of marketing bucks could ever deliver. “A large, large population across the UK have just heard about the film for the first time, so that’s brilliant for us,” he said.

Cineworld has opted to protect its staff at the cost of its market share and reputation. The chain’s share price has fallen 3.8% by Monday 6 June while its action leave it an easy target for campaigners of all stripes in future.

Vue meanwhile has had to weather its own storm earlier this month when it denied cancelling screening of found-footage horror “Dashcam”. The film’s director Rob Savage posted a screenshot with his own tweet, which read: “Apparently @vuecinemas have canceled our screenings of DASHCAM because the movie is too offensive! If that doesn’t make you want to watch this film, what will?”

However, in a statement to The Independent, Vue spokesperson said: “Our decision not to screen DASHCAM was informed purely by the commercial conditions not being viable.” Vue is probably particularly sensitive after the controversy around the “ban” (the circumstances are disputed) of the film “Blue Story” in 2020.

The low budget film, shot on an iPhone, received one and two star reviews in The Times and The Telegraph, is distributed by Momentum Pictures.
All publicity being good publicity, not matter how bad, “Dashcam” can be expected to find a home on a digital platform soon. So far nobody has called it ‘divisive’ and no cinema has cancelled it out of concern for the safety of its patrons or staff.

Adrian Pennington