I have been involved with this project since 2006, and it has evolved in unexpected, exciting and radical – if in retrospect logical – ways. The so-called “Arab Spring”, involving the recent uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere have “clinched” the themes and trends that were already being explored in both Turkey and Egypt, and the story Shahrazad has become a clear metaphor for the oppressed within a region finding its voice, a point around which the possibility of articulation can be measured. I have formed a very deep personal, social and emotional connections – and making this film has led to experiences and relationships that are at least as important as the final product itself. It is my hope that it will do justice to the experiences, dreams and histories of various people we encountered, and to place various over-simplified conceptions within a larger, more meaningful framework.
A Different World: This film is not interested in acting as corrective of problematic Western views on the Middle East or Arab “world” or of ongoing Islamophobia visible in notions such as Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”. Recent political events, if anything, have completely shattered conservatist Western reservations about shared humanity, supposed lack of political culture, and so on. The region is however rapidly changing, and traditional filmic approaches to what is happening are perhaps not sufficient at this point. By employing the form of creative documentary – by not limiting reality to specific discourse/s but rather allowing more “democratic” access to new ways of thinking and feeling – one can start suggesting new and constructive ways of bringing together politics, society and observed reality, and to locate current movements within a broader and necessarily less historically specific framework. The work done by people in the film show clearly how original use of existing cultural traditions can affect social change in terms of internal issues such as minority rights, Turkey’s relation to Europe, political and gender oppression, socio-economic inequalities, police-state corruption, oppression of dissent, relationships to Israel, the destructive impact of Western-style “modernization” and so on. Political dissent within the region has often too easily fed into Western agendas (as was clearly the case with Iran’s “Green Revolution” of 2009) – the solutions to the region’s various problems do not lie in importing standard liberal democracy, or in simply opposing religion against political freedom, and this film attempts to employ a different approach towards gaining insights, and not to limit access to a specific point of view. It is also important to note that the conflicts and processes involved are not dissimilar to other places in the world – in my home country South Africa, many of the same negotiations are taking place.
Fable: The idea of the “fabulous” and “magical” is often used to exoticize the “Orient” in problematic ways – but the film also shows how these can clearly work differently. So, while the west has “spun fables” about a conflated Islamic/Middle Eastern/Arabic world, it is also clear that Shahrazad’s effectiveness as proto-feminist lies in her ability to tell stories. The film will explore the possibility of political freedom and positive action within this form. Because one is breaking all “normal” expectations of logic, sequentiality and so on, there is space for radical social and political critique within fable; reality can be imagined very differently and can go further than being contained in rational terms only. Fantasy is not context-specific, and involves the opening of new spaces; it is relevant that in the classic Arab world 1001 was the number for infinity. The act of romanticization – and Cem Mansur would say this is also the case with music – can be a mechanism for staying alive, for transcending material hardship, and also one that suggests deeper hope in opposition to postmodern cynicism. The NIGHTS breaks boundaries on all levels, and this film attempts to get away from the image of a necessarily stern Islam, looking at playfulness, normality, and the integration of religion – and fable – into the everyday.
Music and Documentary: It seems that the “classical” music documentary is a vastly under-explored form. A film dealing with already-structured music allows huge possibilities in terms of how music and “usual” documentary elements interact. On a simpler level, visual and further sound elements – especially documentary ones – have the ability to make the emotional power of music vastly greater. Being able to include some form of commentary on music within a film (as in for example Bruno Monsaingeon’s films on Glenn Gould) allows further understanding of it than is possible in an ordinary concert performance. In almost all of my previous films music has played a significant role. I did a MA degree on the links between language and music, and have played and composed music for many years; I also made a short film with Cem Mansur for AJE (Witness) a few years ago. As with my film A LION’S TRAIL, this project combines this interest with broader contemporary issues. I have loved Rimsky-Korsakov’s SCHEHERAZADE ever since I was a child (as have very many members of a big global audience), and the highly visual nature of the suite makes it an ideal musical starting point. The idea of testing how far the “magical” element of fantasy can be employed with documentary reality is also very exciting for me.
Local and International: As a South African filmmaker I feel the need to go further than my own country and to ask questions about my own society in a both more oblique and more universal manner – coming from the “developing world”, we are often (unlike filmmakers from “developed” countries) pigeonholed into only being expected to make films about our own direct environment, and with this film I am excited about new possibilities of exploration and at looking at how social issues elsewhere can cast light on understanding my own environment.
Finally, it goes without saying that the ideas presented here are not complete or final. Documentary filmmaking is for me a question of active exploration rather than information-giving, and it is in the nature of films made with openness and honesty to end up being much wiser than the filmmaker is when starting out.
Francois Verster, November 2011