Greg Barker's "Koran by Heart" is the latest in an ongoing stream of competition documentaries out this year. But calling it "'Spellbound' in Arabic," as Variety's John Anderson has done, is way too simple and obvious. Anderson does at least acknowledge in his review that the comparison, quoted slightly out of context for the marketing of the film, is indeed only the "shorthand" response. Even Barker claims it is "a competition film, first and foremost," but his doc goes above and beyond that genre, providing audiences with much to consider about the transnational compass of Islam, the followers of which are united by a religious text but may be separated by location, language, culture and interpretation.
The film presents a look at the annual International Holy Koran Competition held in Egypt during Ramadan. 110 students from around the world come together in Cairo for the event, with undivided contestants ranging in age from 7 to early 20s. Barker primarily spotlights three of the youngest participants, each only 10 years old, traveling from as far as Senegal, Tajikistan and the Maldives. The object of the competition is to recite randomly selected passages from the Koran and exhibit skills of memorization and pronunciation -- or vocalization, since the text is chanted in precise rhythms and tones.
The fact that it's not necessarily a display of comprehension does correlate Koran recitation to spelling bees, making "Koran by Heart" more akin to "Spellbound" than most competitive docs likened to Jeffrey Blitz's 2002 exemplar. But the contest here is also a metaphor for contention among Muslims throughout the world regarding proper observance of the text and Islam in general. Many of the competitors, including the three that Barker focuses on, do not speak Arabic. So while they may have an understanding of the teachings of Islam, they don't know what they're literally chanting when they recite the text in the Arabic language. Equate this with followers of any religion who either don't fully know or fully obey the doctrine of their faith. Or, to followers who believe and live one way that is perceived as ignorant or incorrect by other followers. The irony of the analogy, however, is that there
is appears to be only one perfectly accepted way to recite the Koran given the way the contest is scored.
While non-Muslims can certainly relate to the idea of disagreeing religious sects, "Koran by Heart" is essentially about the current divergence of Islam into fundamentalist and moderate groups. The film's pointedness is extremely clear in the dynamic of one contestant's own family. The parents of a very bright young girl from the Maldives are separately interviewed, the father being a strict and conservative Muslim who wants his daughter well-educated but ultimately confined to the status of housewife, whereas the mother is more open and encouraging to the hope she grows up to be a scientist or fills some other occupation worthy of her ability and intelligence. She is apparently lucky enough just to be allowed to compete in this event, considering many Muslims forbid women to publicly recite the Koran at all, and she's one of only a few female entrants.
The boy from Tajikistan meanwhile has drama with his school being shut down, his narrative arc concerning the effect of a secular government -- even the permissive rather than oppressive sort once known in his country -- on Islamic education. It's a very minor address of this one specific nation's handling of extremist Muslims, and one specific kid's problem within that issue. Nothing in "Koran by Heart" is really intended nor does it function as representative of general Islamic life, overall or locally to the geographic areas covered. Yet it does help illustrate the spectrum of differing Muslim lifestyles around the world, and within the religious umbrella, while mostly showing us the distinction of individuals who practice Islam.
As for the competition itself, there is less of the tension and intrigue of something like "Spellbound" and the more recent teen magician doc "Make Believe." One reason is that many us will not know how well the kids are doing in their recitation, whether they screw up especially, until we see their scores. The recited segments of the Koran are not subtitled, probably to keep us in suspense, but the way we're kept in the dark is sometimes more frustrating than exciting. Plus it's eventually apparent that the most closely followed subjects, whose home lives we've already seen, as if Barker began filming them before they went to Cairo (from what I understand he began there, exactly a year ago), were likely chosen as principal characters after the fact. Not to say (or give away that) they're all winners, but their stories seem designed with hindsight, so either way there is no sense of uncertainty or surprise.
One kid does have a rather emotional moment in his recitation, though, and you will feel it, too. The "heart" in "Koran by Heart" is definitely present as more than just the initial connotation of firm apprehension. Just as the Koran of the title is also up for different meanings and understandings, as well. If we can get more competition docs with such multi-level appreciation, I sincerely look forward to this genre's trend continuing.
"Koran by Heart" premieres tonight on HBO and will be available on the cable network, HBO On Demand and HBO Go through September 11.
Recommended If You Like: "Spellbound"; "Jesus Camp"; "Frontline: Muslims"