Note: This interview originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Catch Koran By Heart on HBO, debuting Monday, 8/1.
Tribeca: Tell us a little about Koran By Heart:
Greg Barker: It’s a competition film, in a traditional Spelling Bee type way, but it’s also about the challenges facing the next generation of Muslims around the world. It’s a film that’s set mostly in Cairo around the world’s oldest and most prestigious Koran reciting competition, for kids who come from all over the Islamic world from about 70 countries. 100 kids, some of them as young as 7 years old, come together for somewhat of an Olympics of Koranic recitation. So it’s a competition film, but what happens is that, by getting to know the amazing young kids that we focus on, who are all 10 years old, we really get into their lives. It becomes not only a story about the challenges facing the next generation of Muslims, but also about the choices all of us make in terms of how we raise our kids and what education we choose for them.
Tribeca: When did you first hear about this competition and what inspired you to tell this story?
Greg Barker: My last film was the feature documentary Sergio, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the Islamic world over the course of my career. I’ve spent most of my adult life based in London, traveling a lot, and for some time I’d been looking for something that spoke to the struggles going on within modern Islam over whether the religion should embrace modernity or return to its ancient roots. I’ve seen that played out in country after country. It’s also very academic and esoteric.
So I was looking for a way that a filmmaker could touch on all of these themes, but also have a good story at its core. I was bouncing around ideas with Sheila Nevins at HBO, who had heard of these Koran recitation contests and suggested that I look into it, and as it happened, it was the perfect way in.
As the film evolved, it really became about these amazing kids who embark on what is, for them, the journey of a lifetime. The 3 main kids are from a very remote village in Tajikistan (Nabiollah), another is a small boy from Senegal (Djamil), and the third is a little girl from the Maldives (Rifdah). They come together in Cairo wide-eyed and full of wonder and also nervous about competing, and we kind of just follow them along. So it really becomes a film about these kids, with the bigger issues receding into the background, as they should.
Tribeca: How did you choose the children whose competition experience you documented? Particularly since two of them ended up doing so well in the competition.
Greg Barker: As it is with a lot of documentaries, you cast a wide net at the beginning, and then see which kids have the stronger stories. It’s a process of filming with a lot of different people and seeing how it plays out. So we ended up with the 3 kids. We include many other children in the film, but we focused on those 3 due to their very compelling journeys—within the competition, and also on a broader level. Their stories spoke to the more universal themes that I wanted to cover in the film.
Greg Barker: With any documentary subject, it’s a question of building trust and people getting to know me and my team, and also getting comfortable with the camera. And that’s just exaggerated with children because the parents are naturally protective and the children are shy at first. It’s really a question of spending time with them and getting to know them and really trying to be in their environment. So a lot of the film takes places in Cairo during the competition, but then we also spent a lot of time in their home countries, which is really where they were the most relaxed.
Tribeca: A really interesting question that continues to crop up throughout the film is whether or not these children understand the words of the Koran they have memorized. It's interesting to explore the idea of whether or not this process is ultimately beneficial to the children or if it is merely an exercise in memorization.
Some of the kids are able to memorize the whole Koran in Arabic—without speaking it or really understanding what they’re saying. They might understand it in general terms, but they don’t understand the language. Also, the language is ancient Arabic, which makes it even harder to understand. It’s sort of like memorizing Chaucer; it’s not really the way we speak English today.
So the kids that we focused on are 10-year-olds, and they are learning the sounds and the exact pronunciation and the rhythm of the Koran without fully understanding what it means. Of course, these kids are only 10, so if they would continue on with their studies, they would eventually learn the actual meaning, but for them, the memorization comes first; it’s both an act of rote memorization and also an artistic act.
Muslims call it reciting, not singing, but to a western ear we hear it as song, and the westerners who study Koran recitation are usually musicologists. So even for a 10-year-old, there is an enormous amount of artistry in how they actually recite, and the melody that they use is entirely improvised, which is pretty extraordinary. One of the cool things for me is that by the end of the film, audiences who know nothing about this world can have an opinion about which reciter they are rooting for.
Tribeca: It seems Djamil’s teacher emphasized understanding of the meaning of the Koran throughout his instruction. This is particularly clear in a scene where Djamil’s teacher tells him if people understood the Koran, there would be peace on earth. But another competitor you focus on, Nabiollah, is basically illiterate in his own language, despite having memorized the whole Koran.
Greg Barker: The film for me turns into a film about how we educate children in general, and the amount of meaning that we put into what could simply be rote memorization. That teacher in Senegal was telling Djamil that Islam was a religion of peace and this is how you should project yourself in the world. And in Nabiollah’s case, you don’t really see that. As it turns out, the school where he has been studying to learn the Koran is shut down by the government as part of a general crackdown on small religious schools they feel they could be breeding grounds for fundamentalists.
Tribeca: How is this competition viewed in the Middle East?
Greg Barker: It’s totally neutral. Within the competition there are people who would be considered more fundamentalist and those who are more open-minded. But in terms of the competition itself, it is pretty much removed from the politics surrounding the struggles within Islam, and the contestants are merely judged on how they recite and to what extent they have memorized the Koran.
Tribeca: The judges all appear extremely neutral, and the man who runs the competition, Dr. Mohammed Salem, is a moderate Muslim and promotes the moderate message as a TV personality.
Greg Barker: The one reason this competition may be considered more open-minded by some is that it allows women and young girls to compete. There are 3 big Koran recitation competitions in the world: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Egypt is the oldest, Dubai is the richest, and Saudi Arabia is probably the more conservative. Egypt is the only competition that allows women to perform, because some of the more fundamentalist Muslims believe that girls should not recite the Koran publicly, and then others say that they can recite it until they are 18 and then they can only do it privately. So it’s a sliding scale.
Tribeca: This becomes particularly apparent through Rifdha’s story, and the conversations she has with her mother about wanting to grow up to to be more than just a housewife, which is what her father has planned for her.
Greg Barker: I really liked that whole family. We spent a lot of time with them, and they are wonderful people who really opened up their lives to us. I felt so privileged to be let through that window into their lives, because I think within that family you get a real sense of the struggles that are going on within Muslim families around the world, particularly regarding the role that religion should play within their lives. I think all this really comes out through Rifdha’s story. Personally, I’ve never seen a family open up on film that way before about private issues they are grappling with. Rifdha, her mother and father are all so compelling, and Rifdha herself is just the most charming little girl. The audience just falls in love with her.
Greg Barker: And I think that’s not uncommon. People enter into adulthood and fall away from the faith they were brought up in. Then later in life something happens, and they reevaluate their lives and want to return to their faith, and with that comes consequences and implications for their families. That’s what we are seeing with Rifdha’s father. His father’s death had a very real impact on him and how he views how his daughter should be raised. Rifdha’s mother did not wear the veil until Rifdha was born, which was around the same time that her husband had this religious experience. So they were a very different couple 11 years ago, before they experienced this change. Rifdha’s aunt, her mom’s sister, is a doctor at a University in Germany, so they are very educated people, and now they are grappling with which course they should take as a family.
Tribeca: We always ask the question of what's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production, and one moment I wanted to highlight was Nabiollah’s first recitation. He had the learned judges in tears, and as soon as he finishes his piece, the judges decide he must have the opportunity to recite to the President of Egypt. What was it like listening to him and capturing this moment on film?
Greg Barker: And for me, that actually was the “lightning strikes” moment. Everybody in that hall was very touched by this little boy with this angelic face who gets up and has this amazing voice, which he conveys with such emotion. Even for someone who comes from a totally different background and can’t understand a word he is saying, there is something incredibly powerful in his ability to transform himself and go some other place when he recites. Personally, I was very moved and our whole crew had tears in their eyes. Then to see how the judges responded made it an amazing moment to capture on film. He is just this normal little kid with this great smile, and yet he is able to take people to another place with his artistry.
When I saw this happen, that’s when I sensed that this film was going to work. I felt there was something very special going on. For me there is a moment in every film where everything crystallizes, and this was this moment for me.
The craziness of this film was also organizing the travel. We had a large team in Cairo on the ground, and it was well organized, but felt quite chaotic, and we also had to keep track of all the kids, which was wild. Filming in their home countries was also hard because they are so remote, and hard to get to in terms of travel. It was very hard to get flights in and out of Dushanbe the capital of Tajikistan. So it was kind of a Herculean task to pull it all together.
Tribeca: What’s the biggest thing you learned while making Koran By Heart?
Greg Barker: As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time in Muslim countries, and I felt like I knew the region reasonably well, but I really think I came away from this film with a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the Koran and its role within Muslim life. Setting aside all the political controversy that surrounds the Koran, because although it’s there in the background of the film we don’t really get into it, I had never fully appreciated the centrality of this book to Muslims and why the act of reciting it is so important. One person compared it to me as being similar to the way Catholics approach the wine and wafer. The act of reciting is itself a holy act, which I had never fully appreciated. When documentaries work, it’s always an amazing window into a world that you vaguely know exists. So it was a great ride and a great privilege to immerse myself in this subject for the better part of a year.
Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from Koran by Heart?
Greg Barker: My hope is that audiences enjoy it as a competition film, and enjoy getting to know these kids and following them on their epic adventures from the middle of nowhere to Cairo. I think it has to work on that level. And then I’d also be thrilled if people had a bit more insight into what Islam and the Koran are all about, and how these people that we are focusing on are religious, but they are also people who are trying to figure out, as best they can, how to lead their lives balancing religion and modernity.
These kids are just coming of age, and will soon have to confront more serious difficulties within their faith and have to make their own choices. So we get a glimpse of that, but in general my hope is that audiences will gain a sense that Islam is a lot more nuanced and multi-faceted than is often portrayed in the news.
It was also great because we filmed in Cairo last Ramadan, right before the revolution. Although I have to say, having been in and out of Cairo for a while, there was a sense that things might change. I don’t think people had any idea the scale of the change, but the fatigue with the regime was in the atmosphere. The other thing about Egypt is that it’s a modern, generally outward-looking society. Historically, Egypt has always been a leader of the Arab world and Islam. The co-sponsor of the Koran recitation competition in Cairo is Al-Azhar University, which is the oldest university in the world. It’s an ancient seat of Islamic learning going back 1,000 years, and it has always seen itself and been the keeper of Islamic education. The spiritual center for Islam was always Mecca, but the educational center was Al-Azhar, and it has always projected a more moderate and open-minded view of Islam. I think what comes across in this film is that more open-minded view of Islam that Egypt has always represented, and hopefully this film can shed some light on that as well.
Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Greg Barker: Find a story that captivates you, that you know something about, and that you can tell and go do it. Follow your instincts. That’s what I was lucky enough to do on this film. Follow your nose and get out there and make films.
Greg Barker: I’m thrilled to be premiering it at Tribeca. New York City is the perfect place to show this film for its premiere, and I’m very excited to see how New York audiences respond to it. I’m also really looking forward to the Q&A afterwards.
Greg Barker: The controversy surrounding Islam is part of our lives, and it’s going to continue to be part of the forces that shape our modern world for the foreseeable future. So I would hope that our film deals with an important subject but in a totally accessible, engaging and compelling way, which is really through these kids. It works as a competition film, but it’s also about something that is affecting our modern lives, so I really hope people turn out to see it.
Catch Koran By Heart on HBO, debuting Monday, 8/1.
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