Two documentaries at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival focus on very different sorts of competitions and devotions.
Koran By HeartDirector: Greg Barker
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
US Date: 2011-04-26 (Tribeca Film Festival)
"My parents told me to learn the Koran before everything else," says Djamil, a 10-year-old boy from Senegal. And he did, working to memorize the entire text in its traditional Arabic script even though he doesn't speak any Arabic. "I like the way the letters look," Djamil says. How much he or any of the children taking part in the 2010 International Holy Koran Competition in Cairo comprehend the words they are reciting is a question unanswered in Greg Barker's superb documentary, Koran By Heart. But the power of the language is visible on the faces of many of the adults listening. An elderly judge wipes tears from his eyes after hearing 10-year-old Nabiollah, whose soaring voice marks him as a prodigal performer, one whose picture is eagerly taken by dozens of worshippers at a mosque. Nabiollah doesn't speak Arabic, either.
The eager nervousness of the hundred-plus children who thronged from some 70 countries to Cairo for the competition has a charming energy, enhanced by the reality-television vote-off. Barker, a director and producer for Frontline, takes the time to observe them and the process closely. The children sit at desks that frequently dwarf them (competitors range from seven years old to their early 20s) and are given the first and last parts of the Koranic verses they must recite. A panel of wizened elders listen approvingly, sometimes rocking slightly, sometimes providing (gently or not) a prodding reminder. The children are then scored on memory and tajweed (an elaborate set of rules for Koranic recitation), as well as their more ineffable qualities, like melody, that must be improvised. The final round is broadcast on Egyptian television, with then president Hosni Mubarak handing out the awards.
In the trio of children the film follows, Nabiollah, Djamil, and Rifdha, a 10-year-old girl from Maldives, Barker has everything needed for audience-grabbing drama. But instead of going for the heartstrings alone (one could imagine distributors pitching it as "Spellbound meets Afghan Star"), Barker more frequently flexes his journalistic side. Interviews with the cheery Egyptian deputy religious minister and competition organizer, Dr. Salem Abdel-Galil, allow him to present an argument for the advancement of a moderate brand of Islam. Abdel-Galil's approach seems apparent in the competition's Babel of voices from dozens of countries unified in their appreciation of the musical recitation of their faith's mother tongue. In contrast, Rifdha's father appears as a model of orthodoxy, disturbed what he sees as the lack of "good" Muslims in Cairo (the lack of beards particularly upsets him) and arguing with other fathers, who don't understand why Muslims can't live in peace with other religions.
As impressive as the children are, Barker doesn't avoid illuminating some painful tradeoffs they and their families have made. Because Nabiollah's teacher was so devoted to his Koranic recitation, once his school is shut down by the Tajik government as part of an anti-extremist campaign, it's made clear that he is nearly illiterate. And for all her eager fluency in math and science, Rifdha is nearly certain to be sent by her father to a more conservative school where she will continue learning, but only enough to make her a good housewife.
Pierre Thoretton's documentary, L'Amour Fou, also concerns tradeoffs and intense competition, but of an entirely different sort. The theater was packed for the screening of this highly-touted film, and judging by the questionable, vaguely 1980s-inspired clothing choices and baroque footwear on display, the main attraction was one of the film's subjects: designer Yves Saint Laurent. But unlike many of the other designer documentaries that have made the specialty rounds of late, Thoretton's is less interested in showcasing the work of Saint Laurent than in presenting a portrait of the man, and what he left behind after his death in 2008.
Essentially narrating the film is Pierre Bergé, who was Saint Laurent's romantic and business partner for half a century. A brusque, thoughtful man who looks to have been the steady hand on the rudder that steered Saint Laurent's bubbling creativity, Bergé talks viewers through an appraisal of Saint-Laurent that is at once deeply personal but also clinically precise. Thoretton matches his style to that of Bergé, structuring the film around the auction of Saint Laurent and Bergé's immense catalog of art treasures that filled their three residences, each more beautiful than the last.
Early on, Thoretton's camera floats through the chambers of their Paris apartment, lingering over the paintings (a Leget here, a Picasso there) and countless objets d'art. At first, the film seems lost in this reverie of priceless beauty, as though it were more exhibition than documentary. Gradually, Bergé's narration creates an impressionistic portrait of Saint Laurent as rocketing genius whose shy manner and pitch-black depressions seem at opposite ends from Bergé's calm mien. A phenomenon who became Christian Dior's assistant at 18 and succeeded him just three years later (Dior's funeral shown to be the equivalent of the passing of a head of state, much like Saint Laurent's many years later), Saint Laurent struck out on his own in 1962. Success followed success, though Saint Laurent would struggle with addiction and depression for years (the warning signs are all there in the film, with Saint Laurent palling around with Andy Warhol at discos and evincing a greater interest in Marcel Proust than was probably healthy).
L'Amour doesn't stint on the fashion porn, particularly from his 1960s collections. Still, it doesn't put his designs in context, either with the times or his own creative vision, and puts even less effort into educating the average citizen on why of this should matter. The film talks some about Saint Laurent's breakthroughs in ready-to-wear and showcases pieces like his admittedly eye-popping Mondrian dresses, but in the main it is a study in mortality, sadness, and the transience of beauty.
Those expecting the hustle and turmoil of The September Issue or even the giddy unpretentiousness of Bill Cunningham New York will come away disappointed, as Thoretton threads the film sinuously through Saint Laurent and Bergé's garden-ringed Marrakech palace and forested Normandy chateau. Bergé tries occasionally to make the case for Saint Laurent's greatness ("The artist sees things for us"), but more often he is reflecting on the dismantling of their shared life, the steady carting away of all the things that his love would never have been able to part with.