It was a beautiful Easter Sunday afternoon in New York and time for me to head to my first Tribeca Film Festival screening: Koran By Heart. As a Muslim and an Arab I was by default attracted to the subject matter. A film about an annual competition in reciting the Muslim holy book that takes place in my original hometown of Cairo.
I was surprised when I walked into the crowded theater and had to sit much closer to the screen than I would've liked to. I didn't expect the film attract so many, especially on Easter Sunday.
The laughs, "awww's" and "ahhh's" I shared with the audience during the 77-minute documentary made it clear I wasn't alone in thinking it was well worth it, especially after the surprise at the end.
The film follows three 10-year old children from Tajikistan, Senegal and the Maldives who travel to Egypt to participate in the competition. Remarkably all three, along with numerous others, have memorized the 600-page book in Arabic without speaking the language.
The film starts with the serene voice of Nabiollah, the boy from Tajikistan, beautifully reciting the Qur'an. We are then introduced to Rifdha, a girl from the Maldives who quickly captures your heart with her shy demeanor. And Djamil from Senegal, whose tears at the competition upon making a mistake brought tears to my own eyes. (You can see their pictures and read an interview with the director Greg Barker here)
While watching, it's easy to jump to judgments. When 10-year-old Rifdha first appears on the screen, I couldn't help but think about the black hijab (head covering) and dress she was wearing at this age. And that's coming from me: a Muslim, Arab woman.
But the film conveys the emotions of those children and their families as they go through this experience so deeply and brilliantly that soon enough you forget about clothes and any other opinions you might have and connect to them at a very human level.
As the film gets to the final round of the competition, you become anxious. Will one of the children featured in the film win? I won't give away the answer.
Rifdha The Explorer
Now, we have to talk about Rifdha, the genius young girl from the Maldives. Through a conversation with her mother we learn that she wants to become an "explorer." When asked what this means, she explains that she wants to study what goes on in the oceans at night.
It is therefore heartbreaking when we then hear her conservative father saying he wants to move to a different country to ensure his daughter gets a religious education and that he doesn't wish for her to work, but to become a housewife. The disappointment in the audience could almost be felt.
The mother is Rifdha's biggest supporter. She talks proudly about her accomplishments and mentions how she loves math and science and is at the top of her class. Rifdha's mother would to let her decide for herself what she would like to do with her future.
After the end of the film, director Greg Barker, who was sitting a few seats away from me, walked to a row of seats behind us and there they were: Rifdha, her mother and father were there watching with us all this time. It was their first time to watch it. They got a standing ovation from the audience and came up to the stage for the question and answer session.
I expected the father to come under attack for what he said about Rifdha's future. I decided there was no point in asking him about it. It will put him on the spot and he won't change his decision because a group of strangers were against it. The first question was about whether he thought work related to the oceans was not in some way in the service of God, a concealed way of saying why not let Rifdha do what she is passionate about. The family however was too shy to answer any of the questions.
Then the last question was a straight shot: Will you let Rifdha be an explorer or do you still want her to be a housewife? The answer was clear: "I don't want Rifdha to be an explorer, I want her to be a housewife."
The director quickly took the microphone and spoke some words of wisdom. When we go around the world making films we don't tell people how to live their lives, he said. Nobody tells us how to live our lives, he added. He graciously thanked the family for coming all the way to New York to attend the opening.
Inspiring film. Good point. Lesson learned.