The Balance review – film about Muslim entertainers treads a fine line

The rise of an Islamic arts industry is celebrated by its screen, music and comedy stars, but the view rarely strays beyond a western perspective

In this survey of the expanding Islamic entertainment industry, The Balance presumably refers to the line faith-based artists must walk with respect to religious strictures. As one interviewee puts it: “You have to push the boundaries, but at the same time you fall victim to potential sins, because sometimes that’s what a sin is.” British film-maker Abrar Hussain’s documentary becomes notably more involving when, three-quarters of the way in, it starts to delve into such spiritual predicaments. Prior to this, it’s a cheerleading whistlestop tour through Islamic music, film, social media and comedy that only fitfully engages with the deeper issues.

Often referring to the “we” of the ummah, Hussain makes the curious choice to mostly preach to the converted, while choosing reference points that must be a bit obvious to them. The Balance opens with eulogies to self-taught popular missionary Ahmed Deedat and Muhammad Ali; OK, they were entertaining, but the film is vague on how they relate to a wider industry. Moustapha Akkad’s 1977 epic The Message, which told the Prophet’s story without depicting him directly, leads the section on cinema. But once again, this representative example – interesting enough in isolation – fails to convey the scope of all that is going on in the field. The Balance slips too easily into montage and generalities; the section on social media, packed with filler about self-obsession and trolling, is weak.

Hussain says that there was no Islamic entertainment industry until 20 years ago – but this overlooks the Egyptian, Afghan, Iranian, Lebanese and Turkish cinema and music industries (though it’s debatable how “Islamic” they are). Only in a segment on South African nasheed singer Zain Bhikha performing to thousands in Sierra Leone does The Balance step out of a western perspective and begin to convey the full diversity of the audience. The section on Muslim standup comedy – pioneered by the US’s Preacher Moss, and which became a vital outlet for cultural self-assertion post-9/11 – is the sharpest. Possibly because this kind of comedy feeds most directly off the intersection of the sacred and the secular that is the nub for every entertainer featured here.

• The Balance is released in cinemas on 1 July.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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