THE DREAM OF SHAHRAZAD has been the longest in the making of all of my films so far, and has changed significantly during the process. I started rolling around the idea with producers Neil Brandt and Shameela Seedat in mid-2006 – the plan at the time was to take a supposedly “safe”, bourgeois musical piece from the symphonic canon and find an unexpected application for it by means of juxtaposing it with a hard political issue. The “classical” music documentary is to my mind a vastly under-explored form, and I thought that a film dealing with already-structured music would allow huge possibilities in terms of music and traditional documentary elements interacting. In almost all of my previous films music played a significant role, and I hoped to push this further with the new film.
I had much loved Rimsky-Korsakov’s SCHEHERAZADE suite as a child – and it had since become a guilty pleasure for me: a “pop classic” that some would describe as kitsch but that also, where I grew up, fitted squarely into a very elitist musical environment. The suite seemed in many ways to me a musical equivalent of exoticised renditions of the Arab or “Middle Eastern” world in the paintings of Delacroix, the writings of Flaubert, and so on. Broad Islamophobic feeling had steadily grown in Western media (and even in “educated” circles) since 11 September 2001, and I started wondering how my own earliest perceptions of the “Orient” – the stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sindbad, and all taken from THE 1001 NIGHTS – related to the problematic current-day conceptions of the region. What was the link between visions of magic carpets and ones of suicide bombs? It seemed to me that employing the SCHEHERAZADE suite as musical Odalisque could be the starting point for an interesting documentary exploration.
We decided to focus on Iran as birthplace of THE NIGHTS, and contacted an Iranian conductor to participate in the film – we would be taking a highly exotic musical version of the famous story collection back to its roots and thereby explore mutual perceptions of East and West, thereby setting a very contemporary issue to a powerful Classical musical score. For various reasons (not least being our proposed Iranian coproducer being jailed for political reasons at the time) the film shifted to Egypt – where I had met various storytellers working on THE NIGHTS – and to Turkey, where I had met highly inspiring conductor Cem Mansur. Cem seemed to be obsessed with the idea of Orientalism in classical music, and was doing fascinating work on how music informs and reflects Turkish identity.
Fable and Orientalism
Even before filming finally started in 2010, questions around exoticism and problematic political uses of fantasy were proving not only to be the less interesting ones, but very often way off the mark. While ideas of the “fabulous” and “magical” are of course often used in relation to the Orient in very problematic ways it became clear to me that these also worked very differently, and that fantasy, especially in an oppressive environment, offered powerful spaces for exploring political freedom – the imagination could free up political possibilities that were not (yet) possible in real life. Because one is breaking all “normal” expectations of logic, sequentiality and so on, there is space for radical social and political critique within fable. Even the act of romanticization itself – and Cem Mansur would say this is also the case with music – can be a mechanism for staying alive and for transcending material hardship. 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 highly imaginative stories. The film, in the end, self-consciously plays with others’ as well as its own position on Orientalism. One example is the use of clips from Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 film THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD with the Story of the Mock Sultan. At one level this is a simple send-up of one of the most extremely Orientalizing moments in cinema history – and yet on another the fantastical aspect of the images (made more so through 90 years of technical advancements in film) allows a liberation of the imagination, a kind of “magic” that leads us towards a different purpose. The storytelling in the film is of course not limited to THE NIGHTS themselves only – they link into the other more contemporary stories and in the film function as a stand-in for all storytelling.
As it Happened
The project evolved in unexpected, exciting and radical – if in retrospect logical – ways. The so-called Arab Spring and the protests in Gezi Park of 2013 seemed to clinch the themes and trends that were already being explored during earlier filming, so that the story of Shahrazad became a clear metaphor for oppressed people finding their voice, a point around which the possibility of articulation can be assessed. I formed very deep personal, social and emotional connections in particular with people in Egypt – and making the film led to experiences and relationships that are at least as important as the final product itself. Working with both Hassan el Geretly as subject and Wael Omar as Egyptian producer, for example, opened huge new doors both personally and professionally. Living through the run-up towards January 2011 and observing the aftermath of the events was incredible – it was a rare moment in history where everything seemed possible, where it seemed that ordinary people could form a new and better world without compromising their ideals. It became my hope that the film would do justice to at least some of the experiences, dreams and histories of various people we encountered, and would place over-simplified conceptions of events within a more thoughtful framework.
We went to Turkey or Egypt around twelve times between 2010 and 2012, and with Arfa’s performance of the Testimony of the Martyr Ahmed in his home village I thought my work was complete. But then Morsi came to power – and then, when we had already finished filming, July 2013 happened… We saw images on television of Muslim Brotherhood members being killed en masse with what seemed to be massive popular support behind General Abdel Fattah el Sisi – and could not believe that the huge hopes of 2011 had come to what appeared to be a situation of near civil war. Egypt seemed to be divided into two camps without any space being allowed for a third position – and the simple idea of Shahrazad as Egypt finding its voice within an oppressive environment was no longer entirely valid… Many of the ideals of the Revolution seemed to have been put aside in the face of unresolved tensions since. Suddenly the language used by the Mubarak regime to justify suspension of civil law was now being invoked by leftists themselves – the army was being cheered on by the same people who had seen their friends and family members killed by them at the Mohammed Mahmoud protests, and so on.
I spent much time reading and speaking to friends in Egypt, both to get a better perspective on what was going on and to understand the implications for our film. It of course became clear that the experiences and actions of people in the country were endlessly more complex than portrayed in the media, and I saw that it was not the point (or method) of our film such as this one to “choose sides” in specific terms. While the association of Mubarak with the despotic Shahriyar in the film was already always a matter of suggestion rather than a fixed bond, this relationship also now became more complex. A friend who saw the rough cut pointed out that the fable of Shahriyar and Shahrazad was actually much wiser than the polar oppositions of the original metaphor: it would be more accurate, he said, to think that sometimes the people are Shahriyar and sometimes they are Shahrazad. It became clear that the two were not isolated from each other and rather existed in a dialectical relationship – so, in truth, fantasy gave the deeper insight by showing that we all have part of both inside us… and each has the ability to morph into its opposite.
I am certain that the sense of rebirth and of possibility brought about by the 2011 Revolution (and of the protests in Gezi Park, which ended being brutally crushed by Turkish police) is still there – something has changed, old seeds have been rekindled, new ones planted, people have not forgotten. What the film perhaps does suggest is that there is an undervalued power in the process of dreaming, in being able to freely use the imagination, and that this not only facilitates political action but also allows for survival during darker times.
Another much valued comment from more than one viewer of the rough cut was on how the film is not about “protest art”, but how it presents art and politics being inseparable from life as it goes on, as not existing in separate dimensions but in constant interaction. There are no large immediate narratives of change (even the 2011 Revolution is one event of many) – something which coincides with the greater purpose of locating contemporary art and politics within the framework of the much older 1001 NIGHTS.
I have for some time been thinking of documentary as a space in which almost all other systems of thought or expression can be brought together – a kind of “ontological meta-montage”, something like a Gesamtskunstwerk, or perhaps akin to Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. The form allows for radical juxtapositions and for freedom of exploration in terms of what these deliver to the viewer. Documentary commissioning procedures tend for the most part to favor films either with strong dramatic narratives or with a tight subject focus. Of course one of the “aims” of documentary film is to shape formal order from the chaos of reality – but it seems to me that what too easily arises is a kind of “tyranny of subject” or “tyranny of narrative”, where the layeredness of existence and experience is violently excised for the sake of easy access to the film. With THE DREAM OF SHAHRAZAD I attempted to loosen up these processes – an approach which I also felt was more appropriate coming from an outsider to a series of (in some ways) very particularly national preoccupations. The aim, then, is to “lay out chunks” of storytelling, political narrative, character insight, character narrative, music, fantasy, impressionistic vision (and so on) and for the audience to make their own connections, guided only to some degree by the filmmaker. The line between meaning and chaos in such a situation is a fine one – but this is what I am interested in as filmmaker right now.
Character narratives presented various more concrete challenges to more traditional dramatic form. The film attempts to some degree to emulate the kaleidoscopic nature of THE NIGHTS, where hundreds of stories of very different natures (deep philosophy, ribaldry, poetry etc) are thrown together in one collection (storyteller Chrine el Ansary interestingly pointed out that 1001 was the traditional Arabic number for infinity, and that in this case the suggestion was that the NIGHTS contain all of possible existence). Because of the great number of differing elements in the film the usual space for slowly observing and getting to know different characters was not available – one had to jump to the “purpose” of each person in the film fairly quickly. This meant that internal editing pace had to be fairly rapid but also that one could more easily do away with chronological realism. In the NIGHTS, characters seldom have any degree of emotional or psychological realism – they are rather cyphers or icons – yet for a documentary film such as this one to work there has to be some degree of empathetic audience association. This contradiction – needing to bond with characters but not having much time to do so – was one of the central challenges in the edit. The edit process was further complicated by the fact that the SCHEHERAZADE suite comes with its own chronological, emotional and “narrative” structure, so that one had to fit the documentary reality (and chronology) to music rather than the other way round – and this led to much tension between documentary and musical progress inside the film. Any changes in the structure created problems with music used, thereby significantly extending the editing schedule. I now think that were I to attempt doing another documentary based on an existing piece of music it would be planned to a far more specific degree.
Finding an ending to the film was one of the most difficult things to do – particularly because the idea of an happy ending was shown to be so problematic by the political history the film covers. Political narratives (especially ones about the future) are, like the stories from THE NIGHTS, fantasies – the process of giving closure is very dangerous. To bring it back to the figure of Shahrazad: we have her very varied (and often incomplete) stories recorded – but how do we know what the truth of her own story is? Did she really get married to a murderer and live happily ever after?
On one level, the film is a meditation on violence and shows how the latter is present in very basic forms of articulation, political or otherwise. The last chapter brings together the fantastical “dream” with the reality of violence, and complicates any insights that the film has built up around these by that point. The larger functioning of the myth includes both “good” and “evil” – in retrospect the viewer then realizes that this has been implied from the start. And yet the possibility of positive change remains most present in the dream element of fantasy, in the way it necessarily continues to oppose difficult realities.
It goes without saying that the ideas above are not complete or final. Films find their meaning during conception, in the research, during production, during editing, and also during the process of reception. It is in the nature of films made with openness and honesty to end up being much wiser than the filmmaker him or herself – and I look much forward to the process from here.
Francois Verster, October 2014