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OK in Iran, shunned in Israel: film about Muslim born a Jew

Israeli film distributors have snubbed a controversial British comedy about a Muslim man who finds out he was born a Jew.

The Infidel, which was written by Jewish-born comedian David Baddiel and is having its UK premier tonight, is an irreverent culture clash comedy about a devoted Muslim father who discovers he was adopted and that his original parents were Jewish.

In a bid to discover more about his new found identity, the father figure, Mahmoud Nasir seeks out his neighbour Lenny, a drunken Jewish cab driver who begins teaching his new friend how to be Jewish.

For a low-cost British comedy made for little more than £1million it has received impressive global interest. Distribution rights have already been sold in 62 different countries, including a host of Muslims states in the Middle East which are known for their strict censorship rules.

But not a single distributor has come forward to show the film in Israel because of fears that it might cause upset within some sections of the Jewish community.

In contrast Israeli distributors have been happy to buy the rights to Four Lions, a soon to be released religious themed comedy about a hapless homegrown terrorist cell who plan a series of suicide bombings in London.

Uzma Hasan, one of the film’s producers, told The Independent: “It’s strange. We’ve had interest from all over the world. We first pitched the film to distributors at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and we hadn’t even started shooting. All we had was a ten second pitch “Muslim man finds out he’s a Jew” and people jumped on it straight away, especially in the Middle East. But for some reason the Israeli distributors just haven’t picked it up.”

As long as it passes the various censorship bureaucracies in each country, The Infidel should soon be showing in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Lebanon, Oman, Iran and Saudi Arabia. There has even been a request from a cinema in Iraq to screen the film. The rights for Four Lions have also been sold across a number of Muslim countries in the Middle East.

Gianluca Chacra, the Dubai-based distributor Front Row Entertainment who acquired rights for The Infidel to the entire Middle East region outside of Israel, said: “We hope this movie will bring in a clear message of tolerance and therefore respect and a sign of peace in this region.”

Despite the potentially controversial nature of its subject, the film’s producers have always insisted that The Infidel treats religion with respect.

“The comedy is about relationships between communities, stereotypes, ideas that Muslims have about Jews and Jews have about Muslims,” said Baddiel. “Essentially it’s culture clash comedy. In my film there are virtually no jokes about, as it were, religion itself. I treat religion fairly reverentially because it suited the narrative to do so.”

English stand-up comedian Omid Djalili, who is from an Iranian Baha’i family and plays the lead role Mahmoud Nasir, added: “Maybe Israeli distributors want the character to be a Jew

throughout the film or perhaps they are concerned the film will be seen as anti-Semitic. We don’t know. There’s still an offer to buy it for Israeli audiences, but they’re unsure.”

This is not the first time that the film has had trouble with distributors. According to Baddiel, BBC Films helped develop the film’s script but pulled out following the so-called Sachsgate scandal.

“The BBC has become very morally concerned about anything that might offend so it became clear that they weren’t going to do it,” said Baddiel.

A BBC spokesperson last night denied that the decision to pull out was related to Sachsgate. “BBC Films have a number of scripts in development at any one time, and we are not able to invest in many of them for what can be a variety of creative reasons,” she said.

Prior to its release the film was shown to a number of Jewish and Muslim organisations, none of whom have so far raised any complaints.

“People who have seen the film are rather surprised that towards the end of the film there seems to be some sort of resolution which seems to involve a sort of warmth towards religion,” said Baddiel. “Without giving the end away, the main religious characters have to go back to their religious texts – both the Qur’an and the Old Testament – to find a way through their religious confusion. That might imply a sort of pro-religious ending.”