First things first: it is hard to be a blogger without reliable internet. It's also very embarrassing not to have reliable internet in New York. How does that even make sense? Well, I'm not going to explain it here. But I will blame the delay between this 'review' and the day I saw the film in question (April 30th, at the Tribeca Film Festival) on that particular problem.
Let me first state the obvious: you should watch Koran by Heart. I heard it's going to be on HBO at some point - keep your eye on filmmaker Greg Barker for news there. The story pretty much makes itself - adorable, intelligent, charming children with beautiful voices, competition, long difficult journeys, language barriers, bonds between parents, etc. etc. Somewhere between my last year of high school and my first year of grad school I became the sort of person who cries at the mere mention of 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' even though I don't watch the show. So even as I sat there scribbling notes as fast as I could, tears were running down my face (for happy reasons! sad reasons! reasons I can't explain!). Thank God movie theaters are dark.
However, like most students in this field, I lost my ability to just shut up and let myself be entertained a long time ago. Just recently I walked into my youngest brother and sister's dance competition to see a team of primarily white suburban New Jersey girls performing a very intricate, skilled rendition of some sort of Bollywood/Bharatanatyam dance, plus requisite high kicks and triple turns...to Arabic music. In bright orange harem pants, belly shirts, and scarves. The oldest members of the team were teenagers, and they were all really, really good. Every detail perfectly executed and perfectly in sync. But ahh...the headache came immediately.
So here are my complaints about what was otherwise one of the most promising examples I've seen of a blooming genre in film, I'll call it Movies-to-Make-You-Like-Muslims- closely related to Movies-to-Explain-Islam, often with nobler intentions, though often equally misguided.
1) The three main characters in the film are ten year old children from Senegal, Tajikistan, and the Maldives. For some reason, we never see a city or town name for these places, though the footage from each child's home country is made to stand up against Cairo, an imposing cityscape that gets its own sped-up, frantic, urban-life montage. Since Nabiollah Saidov from Tajikistan travels within his country, we do get a sense of the difference between his own very rural area and the capital city where he hopes to attend boarding school. The audience never learns which particular island Rifdha Rasheed hails from in the Maldives. Since most people in the U.S. have likely not even heard of the Maldives, we can maybe offer Barker a pass for just letting American audiences know that it exists! In the Indian Ocean! - even if these audiences never learn, say, whether the Maldives is one island, two islands, or twenty six. But the footage from Djamil's home in Senegal really bugged me. It seemed somehow unfair, and too easily in line with stereotypical portrayals of Sub Saharan Africa. Senegal is represented by a village setting, and that setting alone - Egypt by its largest city, and that city alone.
2) The filmmakers also left out some rather important details. For example, though Rifdha is a very successful student who wants to be an explorer, and her mother clearly wants Rifdha to continue studying science in addition to religion, one moment of serious tension in the film comes when Rifdha's father says that his dream for his daughter is that she'll get a religious education and ultimately be a housewife. In a Q&A session after the film, one of the Associate Producers told us we should all know that Rifdha's mother works. Why wasn't that information in the film?
Secondly: While watching we learn that Nabiollah's rural, one-room school has been shut down as part of a government crackdown on "Islamic extremism" in Tajikistan. Again, in the Q&A after the film some audience members asked for clarification. Was this some sort of blanket crackdown? Did it have more to do with politics? Or was Nabiollah's teacher really promoting extremism? The answer turned out to be that the government in Tajikistan was simply shutting down all small, rural schools dependent on the instruction of only one teacher, since it is difficult for the state to supervise or control what happens in such classes.
I'm not sure why a documentary that was otherwise well-crafted, beautifully filmed, compelling, and clearly assembled by people familiar with the material needs to have these sort of slips - to me it looks like sloppiness, since I don't think it was their intention to portray Nabiollah's school as a bastion of extremism (the film actually includes a very sympathetic interview with Nabiollah's teacher after the shutdown), or to imply that Dakar looks like Djamil's village, or that Rifdha's father is certain to have the final word on her future (or that his word is uncomplicated and unchanging).
Oh, well.The children are adorable, their voices really are beautiful, and according to my latest searches, you can't watch them on YouTube. All complaints aside - I recommend it.
Just be prepared for a few awkward moments, one of which was entirely out of the filmmakers' control. Our little heroes are competing in last summer's Cairo-based annual international Qur'an reciting competition. The competition always happens during Ramadan, and the winners are always announced on Lailat al Qadr...by the President. Yes - Hosni Mubarak makes a cameo appearance. How quickly it has become strange to see him playing the role he always envisioned for himself: a benevolent father figure, watching over his children and grandchildren.
Nabiollah, the only one to recite at the awards ceremony, had this to say: "That's when I realized it was a big deal, because usually presidents don't come for small things."