Another person inspired by the call to prayer! Don't know how this documentary will be. I think it's hard for non-Muslims to understand that Islam can be very traditional and ritual filled as well as being liquid, changeable, modern and contemporary. And that people's opinions or choices are not always "from Islam" ie the father wanting his daughter to be a housewife.
Looks like it's playing on HBO on Monday so if anyone watches it let us know!
Update: Found the trailer, looks cute!!
A War-Hardened Filmmaker Delves Into Islam
On his way home from covering the Persian Gulf war, the filmmaker Greg Barker stayed overnight in a small Egyptian village. Early the next morning, an undulating sound awakened him. For someone raised in Southern California, where predawn interruptions usually come from car alarms, it took some time to realize he was hearing the muezzin’s call to prayer.
In that moment, Mr. Barker sensed both epiphany and rebuke. Something about the summons to worship clearly mattered enormously to the people now heading toward the mosque. Yet even after working for months as a journalist in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, reporting on a war in the midst of the Muslim world, Mr. Barker had to admit that he knew virtually nothing about Islam.
Now, 20 years later, the curiosity and challenge of that moment have reached fruition in the form of the documentary “Koran by Heart.” The film follows three children as they compete in an international contest to memorize and recite from the Koran, the Muslim holy book. Fittingly, it will be shown on HBO on Monday as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins.
“Koran by Heart” simultaneously embraces and subverts a familiar documentary genre. As several critics noted when it played last spring at the Tribeca Film Festival, it follows the formula of cute, precocious kids under win-or-lose pressure that was popularized by the 2002 film “Spellbound” and “Mad Hot Ballroom” in 2005.
Unlike a spelling bee or a dance tournament, though, the International Holy Koran Competition, held annually in Cairo, has consequences beyond triumph or tears. In Mr. Barker’s supple, subtle hands, the contest provides a means of exploring the tension within Islam between the kind of fundamentalism typified by rote, literalist instruction and the modernity outside the madrasa’s door.
“I was interested in Islam as a force in the world,” Mr. Barker, 48, said in a Skype interview from his home in the Los Angeles area. “The struggles, the conversation about modernity within the faith. It’s not what most people are aware of. I was looking for a way to put a human face on the religion and on the struggle. And as a filmmaker, I was looking for a way in.”
Before embarking on the project, Mr. Barker had established himself as a filmmaker of artistic and political consequence with documentaries like “Ghosts of Rwanda,” a retrospective on the genocide there, and “Sergio,” which explored the assassination of the United Nations’s ambassador to Iraq in a truck bombing that killed 22 people.
About two years ago, Mr. Barker and Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films, separately heard about the Koran competition. With the cable network’s backing, Mr. Barker assembled a crew, navigated the labyrinth of Egypt’s bureaucracy and began filming the two-week contest last August.
Even as Mr. Barker was granted access, skepticism and hostility also greeted the project. While he was limning Islam through the contest, the organizers and participants were expressing their attitudes toward the West to the documentary’s creative team.
“The big question, over and over again, time after time, without fail, was, ‘Why are these people making the movie?’ ” recalled Razan el-Ghalayini, 25, an American Muslim and associate producer of the film. “ ‘Don’t Americans and Christians hate Islam?’ I don’t think even I understood the extent to which people felt that way.”
Amid that climate, Mr. Barker managed both to grasp the pageantry of the competition — 110 children and young adults from as far afield as Italy, Nigeria, Pakistan and Australia, all being tested on a text of 200,000 Arabic words and their ability to improvise melodies as they chant — and to zero in on the characters who would ultimately supply the film’s deeper themes.
These were three 10-year-olds: Nabiollah Saidoff from Tajikistan, Rifdha Rasheed from the Maldives and Djamil Djieng from Senegal. After the contest ended, Mr. Barker and his crew followed all three back to their home countries.
A prodigy at Koran recitation, fawned over by elderly judges as if he were Harry Potter at Hogwarts, Nabiollah turns out to be illiterate in Tajik. His sole education has come from the imam of a madrasa that the Tajik government shut down for its fundamentalist leanings.
“The problem,” the principal of a secular school explains in the film, “is small rural schools, where children have just one teacher, can lead young people to join extremist groups.”
In seeming contrast, Rifdha, the daughter of two accountants, is a straight-A student and aspiring scientist. Her father, however, has become a fervent Muslim, dismissive of the Egyptians as not observant enough. He informs Rifdha that he plans to move the entire family to Yemen, and that, even if she is educated, her future will be as a housewife.
That intimate drama attests to the words offered during the film by Maumoon Gayoom, a former president of the Maldives: “We have always practiced a very moderate form of Islam in the Maldives. ...But the trend — to go back in history, to return to early Islam — is felt all over the Muslim world.”
It would be an unconscionable spoiler to reveal here what happens to Rifdha and Nabiollah by the documentary’s end, or to divulge how they fare in the contest. Suffice it to say that they exemplify both the concept of the umma — a sense of Muslim peoplehood that transcends race, class, geography and nationality by means of its common text — and the specter of unquestioning obedience to scripture.
“For me, it all comes down to education,” Mr. Barker said. “If we were making a film about evangelical Christians memorizing the Bible, and that’s all they did, we’d be troubled by that. With regard to Islam, we have a problem with that narrow approach, which can lead to extremism and, in the worst cases, to terrorism. As long as they’re getting a broad education, their religion is their own business.”