Muslim Voices Film Festival: I Bring What I Love

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[Muslim Film Festival]

This festival at the BAM seeks to showcase the arts in the Islamic world, and more importantly to expose western audiences to a world that is at once viewed with fascination if misunderstood, or feared, if out of ignorance.

The festival brings together works from the Muslim world, ranging from Algeria to Pakistan; works which explore the diverse and multiple perspectives that Muslims bring to the global stage.

One of the films, “I Bring What I Love” is a documentary on the Senegalese pop star, Youssou N’Dour, and chronicles events around his opus magnum, “Egypt,” an album that celebrates his Muslim faith, and subsequently won him a Grammy.

Arguably the most popular African artist in the western world today, N’Dour attempts to celebrate his faith through this work by paying homage to the most venerated Mourides religious leader, Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, the holy city of Touba, and dedicating a piece to Mohammad (PBUH).

In a typical griot fashion, the documentary opens with a song invoking some of the great leaders of the struggle for Africa: Cheikh Anta Diop, Nkrumah and Steve Biko, and presents a vivid picture of the rich culture of Islam and how it is practiced in Senegal.

One sees a society that weaves religion into the very fabric of society and allows this duality to thrive: daily prayers and nightly jaunts to nightclubs, bustling urban life and serene reverence during prayer times.

If the film succeeds in showing how the Muslim faith is lived in Senegal, it failed to show N’Dour at his most reverent. While a pop composition about personalities in the faith may be a latter day approach to modernizing Islam, the choice of times are circumspect. 

Could the composition of “Egypt” have waited till the end of Ramadan? By playing music during the holiest month, N’Dour had set the stage for the rejection of his album by his people and subsequently the public outcry over his trip to Touba.

One wonders if the timing was meant to generate publicity for the album, and the Grammy award is a subtle reminder of the intended audience of N’Dour’s work. Far from being an expose on Islam, this documentary reveals an Islamic Kirk Franklin: moving Koranic verses and chants to modern “Mbalax” and pop genres.

The post-screening live performance with his band, Super Etoiles was electrifying, bringing the audience to their feet at all times. In a moment of dramatic irony, two women went on stage to the call and response gyrating to the tama drum, validating criticisms labeled against him for desecrating the religion by having women dancing nude in videos or bringing a cast of infidels to the holy city of Touba.

Far from being a portrait of the artist and his faith, “I Bring What I love” is an interesting documentary on the artist and globalization of art through faith.

This is a moving cinematographic work by one of the prolific Iranian directors, Dariush Mehrjui, about a young couple navigating between modernity and tradition in the urban world of Tehran.

Reza and Leila are newlyweds who seem happy together, enjoying a modern lifestyle when Leila discovers that she is unable to give birth to a child.

This discovery led to a series of events that shows Leila at once chagrined and resilient.

While Reza accepts their collective fate, he constantly reminds Leila that he does not want a child and that they are fine together—he reminds her he loved her and not a child—but the incessant pressure and nagging from the mother-in-law for Leila to allow Reza to take a second wife pushed Leila to accept this arrangement albeit with some reservation.

As a couple in love, who do everything together, Leila accompanies her husband to the rendezvous to pick a second wife who will bear him a child. The movie shows us the travails and the torment that Leila goes through as she accompanies her husband and when the latter finally decided on a second wife.

At this point, Leila realizes that she is not as stoic as she wanted to be and the pressures that eventually caused her to leave the husband to go back home.

This movie reveals the clash between tradition and modernity and the towering grasp tradition can have on even modern—read educated, urban—couples. The telephone, once a symbol of modernity had become the tool of enforcing tradition. When the telephone in the Reza-Leila household rings, there is mounting pressure on what the message on the other end of the line will be. That they are in Tehran, a modern sprawling city, which serves as a backdrop for the story is reminder that tradition can be overbearing.

To the Western viewer, Leila’s docility must be frustrating, if not down right reprehensible, and at times masochistic. Why would she subject herself to something like this when, she is well educated and a liberated woman. But one realizes that the tentacles of tradition run deep.

Despite the fact that Reza’s sisters do not approve of what their mother was instigating, they nevertheless stayed away, and Leila could not bring herself to tell her family her little “secret”.  That the west frowns on polygamy makes it all the more unbearable but the practice is viewed differentially elsewhere in the Muslim world where it is allowed, as long as one can love the women equally. 

In the end, the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions. Is Leila to blame entirely for her fate for not confronting the mother-in-law?

Should Reza have been more understanding and rebellious not to take a second wife and should the mother-in-law be that involved in their marriage? These questions make the film a tour de force for discussions on tradition versus modernity.

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