The Lady of Heaven Aims to Bring the World Some Much-Needed Hope and Light

If you like your historical epics epically historical, you’ll love The Lady of Heaven.

If ever the world needed some hope and light, it’s now. Even with a continually encroaching virus, people remain poised against other people. It’s happening within countries, it’s happening within walls and it’s happening between colors, creeds and faiths.

Fortunately, it wasn’t happening within the polyglot collective behind The Lady of Heaven. A literal epic of a film — and the first world movie to tell a purely Islam story since 1976’s The Message — The Lady tells the tale of Fatima, officially Fatimah bint Muhammad, or more commonly known as Fatimah al-Zahra. Yes, we mean daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and Khadijah. Whether or not you believe she was the youngest or the only depends on which side of Islam you stand, but daughter she surely was.

Forget though the controversy and the in-fighting, and set aside any historical anomalies. After all, Fatima would. In fact, she’d glide right over them. Why? Because Fatima’s message was about hope and light, for everyone.

Not to be confused with Our Lady of Fatima, though considered with equal reverence, nor with the Christian Mary, though surely of equal impact, this Fatima is a historical figure whose story is simply demanding to be told. That the telling might also bridge some very troubled waters only makes it exponentially more essential.

That’s why the good folks at Enlightened Kingdom stepped up to the task. And that’s also why they so vividly succeeded. To prove it, we got with Executive Producer Malik Shlibak. And he was kind enough to provide a why, as well as a what-for, plus fill us in on the rigors of creating a sensation that’s been impacting a good third of the world for nearly 1300 years.

Just who is Enlightened Kingdom (and what Kingdom are you referring to)?

The Lady’s message is full of light. We passionately believe that her message is universal. Anyone from any background can take away with them a positive message – and ‘be enlightened’.

As for the kingdom, well, any kingdom! Whether that be the United Kingdom, where we are based, or otherwise. The world is, for us, one community – and we hope to bring the enlightening story of the Lady to everyone.

Was EK the main catalyst behind the making of The Lady?

Enlightened Kingdom being behind this production was definitely of the main catalysts behind achieving the film, although credit must be given to all those who collaboratively made it a reality.

Such as?

His Eminence Sheikh al-Habib, who initiated the idea for this production, masterminding the idea as well as writing the story. Without his in-depth knowledge and research in Islamic History and credibility as an Islamic scholar the film simply would not have been facilitated.

Anyone else we should mention?

There are too many names to even begin to list! But of course at the forefront would be Producer Matthew Kuipers, Creative Director John Stephenson, Composer Craig Pruess, and Editor Steve Mercer! Their passion and dedication from start to finish blew us away!

How did you discover the project?

Me personally? I discovered the project through my work at The Rafida Foundation, under The Mahdi Global Servants Union. The project was announced to Union members and I was invited to take part. This led to the setting up of Enlightened Kingdom.

What made the story so compelling to you?

As someone from a Sunni background, I reached a point in my life where I wanted and needed to know more about Islamic heritage. About four years ago I was lucky enough to discover the story of Lady Fatima through the sermons of His Eminence Sheikh al-Habib. From that day onwards I was captured by her nobility and the impact she had on Islam, the Arabian Peninsula and the world at large. Truly a unique Lady who, for me, no other character in history can be compared to.

What kind of logistic complications were faced by the production?

The location was extremely difficult to finalise. We required to utilise the budget to maximum efficiency and beyond, as any independent and upcoming production company would. We needed somewhere that would be cost-efficient, yet fulfil certain criteria such as appropriate settings, suitable extras, weather, etc.

Beyond the location logistical issues where present every step of the way. Getting out a big-budget film as a new production company is not for the faint of heart. If I was to open that can of worms I’d be with you all day – as I’d basically have to go through the entire production process! Props to our Producer Matthew who kept things focussed every step of the way. We had far too many rough periods and countless debates and discussion on how to overcome the new hurdles that sprung up every second day. But collaboratively we pushed through, and here we are today.

How about cultural and religious complications?

The biggest complication here was ensuring we abided by Islamic traditions in order to do justice to the religion and Muslim community. The team went through a meticulous research period for about a year prior to production. Exhaustively long guidelines were produced to account for every aspect of the production. There was perhaps even more exhaustive preparation on the script in order for it to be religiously sound and historically accurate.

Another hurdle was implementing these guidelines! As one would expect, a film of this budget involves many creative minds from varying professions. A constant tug of war existed between full creative freedom and maintaining religious and historical accuracy. Enlightened Kingdom had a firm goal from the very start in not compromising on Islamic traditions and historical accuracy. So the various creative minds had a tough task on their hands. In the end, and through the exceedingly cooperative and professional creative minds, we managed to achieve both our goal and the goal of a high-quality cinematic production.

We also struggled with a solution to present the holy characters in an appropriate manner. The holy characters being highly cherished to the Muslim community, we had to go out of our way to present them in a manner that Muslims would welcome. We also wanted to do something new and unique. After much contemplation and research, we decided on the solution of using CGI. Through collaboration with a top VFX and CGI house, the results are breathtaking. The quality itself is a milestone. Many who have seen the outcome are unable to even tell that it is CGI. We also had to dig deep into historical records to make sure the holy characters were as true of a likening to how they actually looked.

Our website elaborates on this solution:

“In accordance with Islamic tradition, during the making of this film no individual represented a Holy Personality. The performances of the Holy Personalities were achieved through a unique synthesis of actors, in-camera effects, lighting and visual effects.”

Were you also concerned that the West would confuse your Lady (that is Fāṭimah al-Zahrā) with Our Lady of Fatima?

This did cross our mind, yes. Although not much of major concern as the Lady has a very distinct and resonating story. We’re sure with the right marketing, and through the story in itself being memorable and impactful, the general public will be able to easily differentiate between the two. Not to mention this is the first cinematic production in the early period of Islam since ‘The Message’ in almost 40 years. Her being ‘The daughter of Prophet Muhamad’ is not something people will miss.

The Lady is most definitely meant for an audience beyond Islam, no?

No doubt. In fact, the production is primarily targeted at non-Muslims! The Lady belongs to the world, not just to the Muslims. One of the key motivating factors that led us to create this production was the lack of Muslims sharing the story of The Lady to the non-Muslim world! So many important historical figures from other religions and cultures are put on a pedestal for the world to see, especially if they’re a character the world can learn and gain from. The Lady, for us, has a more impactful and meaningful story than any other! So her story deserves to be heard by the world – they deserve to hear her story.

And even beyond the Sayyids?

By Sayyids are you referring to people who are descendants of the Prophet? Or perhaps you’re referring to religious clerics or religious folk in general? Either way, yes. The film is for the world at large, first and foremost targeted at the non-Muslims, as an introduction to this noble lady.

Are there any interfaith feuds that might prevent some people from viewing the movie (i.e. Hashemite vs Umayyad)? 

Is there any religious matter, film or production that doesn’t come with interfaith feuds? It’s the unfortunate nature of religion, being something people care about so deeply, that people will feud about anything they disagree with. We welcome any and all healthy discussion and debate, even if they are critical. In terms of preventing some from viewing the movie, this I very much doubt. It’s the kind of story that even if you disagree with entirely from a historical or religious perspective, you’re going to watch it. It’s the same thing we see happen with all previous major productions pertaining to a religious narrative.

Are there any other political, religious or cultural considerations you had to take into account re The Lady?

This film is entirely apolitical, so there’s been no issue there.

Forgive me, but didn’t the multiple obstacles (logistic, religious, cultural, etc) cause some initial pause among the producers? Or would you say the many challenges only served to further galvanize you?

There was no pause during production. I would definitely say that the many challenges pushed the team to their limits, forcing everyone to bring their A-game – allowing the project to exceed all expectations and overcome any challenge.

To stand up, as it were, no matter what the cost?

Haha, exactly!

How do you feel now that you’re on the other side of all those challenges?

There’s definitely a sense of relief across the team. You can feel it in the air. The constant pressure that existed definitely took a toll, but it was well worth it. In a strange way, I feel the team has not yet come to terms that the film is finished. It feels a bit like a dream. Perhaps it won’t become a reality until we see it released and see the world’s reactions. The massively successful trailer release with over two million views and a world record number of reaction videos (literally) gave us a taste of this, but we need to see the film out there to truly believe it.

Do you still have some pandemic-related issues to address?

Yes, as do all films currently. It’s a very tricky one. We see some films jumping ship and going straight to VOD, while others are delaying their launch in order for a theatrical release. We’re still on the fence and investigating the best options going forward to give the film what it deserves. But overall we’re still pushing and hoping for a theatrical release.

Beyond that, what’s the plan for The Lady?

A few critical festivals and worldwide distribution! A bit too early to speak in detail, but that’s what we’re pushing for. With our track record of achieving this production, we’re not about to settle for anything less now!

Have you got permission to show the film in Iraq and/or Syria?

Middle Eastern distribution, believe it or not, is not our priority. We’re focused on the non-Muslim audience, and in particular the west. We’ll be looking at middle eastern distribution a little further down the road – hopefully with an Arabic dubbed version.

What steps must you take in order to make that happen?

It’s a little too early to identify the steps required. But we’ll definitely be partnering up with experienced distributors in that region who know how to manoeuvre in that space.

We see that Jim Henson Creature Shop veteran John Stephenson OBE served as one of The Lady’s creative consultants — what was his area of expertise?

John brought to the table his decades of creative experience. Me being a huge fan of The Muppets growing up, I was very excited to work with him! And you don’t get to be CEO of such a groundbreaking and fundamentally creative company without being a powerhouse in creativity. Anyone who watches the film instantly comments on how ethereal and absolutely stunning the production looks. Watching the film, you can tell that each shot had soul and passion poured into it and was carefully crafted with passion and diligence.

Do you see the harmony of the film crew setting the stage for the harmony to come in the theaters once The Lady of Heaven finally hits the big screens?

Yes definitely. The team has become like a family. The production spanned over years! The cohesion we’ve formed in the team is something rare. One of the key players from the team approached me towards the end of the production saying how it’s been such a pleasure working with Enlightened Kingdom and how he felt there was no ego involved. I replied frankly that that’s what Enlightened Kingdom felt towards the various team members working with us – no ego. I think this was one of the greatest aids in us pushing through. Everyone understood it wasn’t about ego, but about pouring our passions into the project for its success. This same harmony will definitely set the stage for theatres!

We’ll be wholeheartedly rooting for you, good sir!

Thanks! And thank you for your time!

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