The Knight and the Princess is Egypt’s first ever animated feature film and an entirely Arab production. Characters are drawn with cultural detail, knowledge and sensitivity, making it a completely different experience from the tiresome predictability of Hollywood Muslim stereotypes.
By Valerie Grove
A new report ‘Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies’ (June 2021) is a comprehensive account of Muslim representation in 200 top grossing, western-made movies released between 2017 and 2019. It presents very clear graphics about the lack of Muslim characters, the extent of stereotypical representation and the subtle, and not so subtle, negatives that accompany these characters. The report also shows that there is very little sense of Muslim diversity and an almost complete absence of Muslim women. Alchemiya is not remotely surprised at any of this. To represent ourselves as we are and to champion others doing the same thing is a large part of the reason we exist.
It is not clear if the report included animated feature films but it is worth noting that they have been quite notorious in the past for negative portrayals of Muslims. This is why we are proud to present The Knight and the Princess, a full length animation that took twenty years to make and was finally released in 2019.
It was directed by Bashir El Deek, and co-directed by Ibrahim Mousa, who was also the art director. Egyptian cartoonist Mustafa Hussein (1935-2014) designed the characters and behind their voices are a crew of Egypt’s most famous actors including Mohamed Henedy, Maged El Kedwany, Abdel Rahman Abou Zahra, Abla Kamel and Lekaa Elkhamissi.
The film was produced by Alsahar Animation, founded by Alabbas Bin Alabbas in Cairo in 1992 and now the region’s leading producer of animation. Originally Alabbas was studying engineering and computer science but during his studies in the US he noticed the impact of animation on his young son. Looking for similar children’s entertainment on returning to Egypt he discovered that there was no animation industry in Egypt or the Arab world as a whole. He switched careers and established Alsahar soon after he graduated.
Although completely fictional, The Knight and the Princess is actually inspired by the seventh-century tale of a teenage Umayyad-era commander, Muhammad bin Qasim of Basra, the knight of the title.
The character of Muhammad is young, idealistic and heroic but is also clever, reflective and kind, wishing for the most peaceable outcomes whether he can achieve them or not. The princess even proves to be a bit of a warrior herself when she is finally able to join her beloved knight in battle.
The scene for the story that unfolds is set early on with a short narration about Arab merchants, their huge importance to trade and the esteem in which they were held. Given how much of this trade was maritime, pirates were an ever present risk and our tale begins when pirates cross the forbidden line and take hostages as well as goods from the Arab trade ships. As a consequence there are several wonderful scenes aboard ships and on the oceans but the film is visually stunning throughout with magnificent scenic backdrops and superb animation.
Although essentially a film for children it has a whole lot of adult laughs and jokes, many of which you are only going to get if you are familiar with the context. The hapless djinns Bakhtou and Shamhoresh are particularly wonderful in this respect but another highlight is the character of Abul Riyah who is an absolute joy, especially when performing his own dedicated musical number.
The film is adventure, romance, historical drama, action, musical and comedy all rolled into one but there is a different atmosphere about this film that sets it apart from any other epic, animated feature you may have seen. This is because it is a story about the past told in the present by the people whose history it actually belongs to.
This is a first and it has been a long and remarkable journey. In the words of Alabbas Bin Alabbas:
“How do you complete a project that is so impractical that people call you a dreamer? That’s the challenge we faced when we created The Knight and the Princess. The idea of making this movie was built on a simple enough premise: Arab stories are better told from an Arab perspective by Arab talents. This animated feature was designed, illustrated and animated, complete with seven songs and a music score all by local talent. During the process of making this film we ended up creating an industry. It is our hope that this film will motivate everyone around the world to share their stories and heritage in the way they would like to reach out and present themselves, their history and their culture.”
Let’s hope that the next one takes a lot less than twenty years to make.