In July 2010, Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa presented a lecture as part of the nonprofit TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) “Ideas Worth Spreading” series, entitled “Superheroes Inspired by Islam.” In April of that same year, President Obama singled out Al-Mutawa as a constructive force in spreading positive messages through entrepreneurial endeavors. Now Al-Mutawa is the focus of Issac Solotaroff’s new documentary, Wham! Bam! Islam! set to air on PBS, October 13, as the creative force behind The 99, a set of comic book and cartoon characters based on the 99 attributes of Muhammad. Solotaroff spent several years following Al-Mutawa on his journey to create a franchise of upstanding, religiously based characters, through its inception in his home country of Kuwait, early success, financial setbacks, redemption, and finally, and rather ironically, the cartoon series being blocked from premiering, not in the Muslim world, but in the United States. The documentary, comprised of a mix of animated sequences and live action footage, offers a unique approach to documentary filmmaking, deftly matching content and structural elements throughout.
In past documentaries that utilize animation, the relationship between reality and representation is often a theme of the documentary itself. In Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008), animation emphasizes the untrustworthiness of memory in recalling trauma. In Wham! Bam! Islam!, however, animation is utilized to a different effect. The veracity of the film’s content is never explicitly questioned; instead, untrustworthy modes of representation highlight the conflict inherent in the central character (Al-Matawa), and thereby call into question his motives throughout.
At the center of Solotaroff’s documentary lies Dr. Al-Matawa’s ethical conflict: does he sacrifice his Muslim principles to become a commercial success, or risk failure and bankruptcy in his quest to provide morally upstanding characters for Muslim children to admire? Solotaroff addresses this dilemma by incorporating animation into the documentary, an approach that calls into question the truth of the images and forces viewers to second-guess the relationship between what’s represented on screen and reality. Wham! Bam! Islam! merges function with form to address the conflict between rampant consumerism and morality via the interaction between the truth of the documentary image and the artifice of the animation.
The film begins with a portrayal of Al-Mutawa, who grew up reading Marvel comics, as an affable, altruistic businessman. He is trying to create a set of 99 comic book characters for Muslim children around the world, each one representing one of Muhammad’s traits, aptly titled The 99. The characters are intended as symbols, embodiments of positive Muslim qualities, as a response to what Al-Mutawa fears is a growing milieu of violence in Muslim imagery. Yet, as Al-Mutawa encounters hardship, especially in his encounters with the Saudi censorship board, he begins to drop his moral pretexts to save his creation.
Throughout the film, Solotaroff utilizes animated segments to highlight the obvious thematic elements of the characters in The 99. Unremarkable moments are often animated in an over-the-top style, adding humor and visual panache to otherwise straightforward expository moments in the film. But within Al-Mutawa’s run-in with the Saudi Censorship Committee, Solotaroff highlights for the first time in the film the ethical dilemma of animation in documentary. Solotaroff is not allowed into the censorship meeting, so he is forced to animate what he believes may be occurring behind closed doors. By animating the head of the committee who is not otherwise “documented” by actual filmed footage, that person being represented becomes much more akin to a fictional character , he is completely at the whim of the filmmaker and animators.
This disconnect between historical and fictional representation through the use of animation in the film emerges prominently in characters who also appear throughout as representations of themselves. Al-Mutawa is often portrayed as an animation and thus is caricatured. Both his bad and good qualities are highlighted and emphasized. Much to the credit of the animators’ and director’s neutral tone throughout the film, none of the characters are presented as embodiments of pure good or bad, but the act of animation nonetheless displaces the “actors” from history and turns them into fictions.
In a particularly memorable sequence Al-Mutawa presents his lecture at a TED event. He shows a picture of a young boy of apparently Muslim faith, wearing a costume implying that he aspires to grow up to become a suicide bomber. He then shows his ideal image of the boy, not wearing fake bombs, but rather wearing a t-shirt and hat showing images of his product, The 99, to a standing ovation. While I would certainly agree that a young boy enjoying cartoons and comic books is preferable to a child dedicated to violence, there is a contradiction in the audience’s immediate willingness to accept the complete commodification of their children. This contradiction between commodification and morality is only heightened by the film’s tightrope walk between the historical realism of documentary filmmaking and the subjective process of animating. Wham! Bam! Islam! is a surprisingly complex documentary that questions the very term documentary in its formal structure, which further problematizes the conflict between the central character’s quest for both moral and material success.