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Bab’Aziz is another bulletproof film celebrating diversity. It will open your eyes to yet another of Earth’s many interesting cultures. If you collect these types of movies, don’t miss this one.

On the other hand, if these movies blur together in your mind and tax your patience, then don’t bother with this one.


Appeals to sight and sound, but not to mind
Appeals to sight and sound, but not to mind

In the press notes filmmaker Nacer Khemir says that he wants to portray another side to Islam.

[...] I tried to wipe Islam’s face clean with my movie, by showing an open, tolerant and friendly Islamic culture, full of love and wisdom... an Islam that is different from the one depicted by the media in the aftermath of 9/11.

We definitely need that here in the West where our songwriters brag about their ignorance of “the diff’rence ‘tween Iraq and Iran.” So cultural enlightenment is a valid and worthy goal, especially for an American audience.

But Bab’Aziz is a little dry, and it’s just a little hard to follow, and some of the performances seem a little amateur. Knowing that there is an important message buried in there just makes it all the more like homework than entertainment.

Carrying Coals to Newcastle

Bab’Aziz and his granddaughter Ishtar walk through the desert on their way to The Gathering. (Is it possible to shoot a bad-looking film in a desert?). Along the way he tells her the story of a prince and a gazelle. The story is interrupted many times by other travelers who have their own stories to tell, making a quilt out of many smaller patches: a sand-carrier sees an opulent palace at the bottom of a well; a Sisyphus with red hair tries to sweep away the sand from the desert; a traveling poet tells how he won a contest; a beautiful woman lifts her veil to Ishtar.

If there are universal truths in any of these stories, they are either unfathomable or so mundane that they have no resonance to my Western ears. One repeated maxim is that “you can’t get lost” if you have faith and inner peace. Perhaps if you spend your life crossing endless deserts, such advice would be valuable or True, but to me it sounds more like a positive-thinking platitude.

One of the more baffling moments is the casual description of one of the side characters, Osman, who makes a living as a sand-carrier. In his first scene, he is completing a delivery of small bag of sand — in the middle of the desert! — to a customer who, I guess, is a connoisseur of really fine sand. It seemed like a joke to me that someone might make a living delivering sand in a desert, but from the tone of the film it’s just as likely I was supposed to take it in stride.

Sounds Good, but....

I didn’t hate Bab’Aziz. The setting is often gorgeous, and the music is even better. The Arabic grooves are infectious, and little Ishtar can really bust a move. But I could never escape the sense that I was supposed to be sitting in awe (or at least respect) of this portrait of a culture, even though I was never drawn in, nor engrossed, nor particularly entertained.

Bab’Aziz might be better at a festival, where you might be able to hear Q&A with the director, or have a side conversation about Sufism and Islam, or compare and contrast this film with the work of Antonioni and Fellini (screenwriter Tonino Guerra, who wrote screenplays for both Italians, “participated in” the screenplay for this film). But to this Westerner, it doesn’t stand up by itself.