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An Interview with Nacer Khemir

Director of Bab'Aziz - The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul
By Nacer Khemir, Nawara Omarbacha

 

Tunisian film director Nacer Khemir's cinematic achievements include the award-winning features Les Baliseurs du Desert (The Searchers of the Desert), awarded the Grand Prix of the Festival des Trois Continents in 1984, and Le Collier Perdu de la Colombe (The Dove's Lost Necklace), which won the Special Jury Prize at Locarno in 1991. His latest film, Bab'Aziz - Th Prince Who Contemplated His Soul has been a hit on the festival circuit and garnered awards at the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, Iran, and the Muscat Film Festival in Muscat, Oman. This interview with the director was conducted by Nawara Omarbacha and was provided by Typecast Releasing.

Why this film today?

I would explain it with this allegory: if you are walking alongside your father and he suddenly falls down, his face in the mud, what would you do? You would help him stand up, and wipe his face with your shirt. My father’s face stands for Islam, and 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.

Fundamentalism, as well as radicalism, is a distorting mirror of Islam. This movie is a modest effort to give Islam its real image back. No other mission seemed as urgent to me as this one: to give a "face" to hundreds of millions of Muslims who are often, if not always, the first victims of terrorism caused by some fundamentalist. And although this movie is based on the joyful and love-giving Sufi tradition, it is also a highly political film, and deliberately so. It is a duty nowadays to show to the world another aspect of Islam, otherwise, each one of us will be stifled by his own ignorance of "the other one."

It is fear that stifles people, not reality. There are nearly one billion Muslims in the world today, that’s one sixth of the Earth’s inhabitants. To try your best to know your neighbor better is a form of hospitality. Hospitality is not just about housing people and feeding them; hospitality is about listening and understanding. You cannot receive someone in your house, just feed him and ignore him! In my opinion, this is a movie that encourages people to listen to each other and, perhaps further down the line, to really come together. Watching this movie is a way of offering hospitality to "the other one."

Why did you choose the complementary title, The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul? Is it an image of Narcissus?

It is true that the Prince leans over the water, but he does not see his own face, like Narcissus did, because whoever sees only his reflection in the water is incapable of love. The prince contemplates what is invisible, that is his own soul. We are all similar to icebergs; only one tenth of us is visible, while the rest lies under the sea.

The idea of the "Prince" came to me from a beautiful plate that was painted in Iran in the 12th century. It shows a prince leaning over water, and it carries the following inscription "The prince who contemplated his own soul." This image struck me as something I had to build upon, which is why it seemed obvious to me that the movie should be shot in Iran. Making a film as continuity to a 12th century artist! I don’t know if it was sheer coincidence (or is it something else?), but we shot parts of the movie in the city of Kashan, which is the city where this plate was made!

Now, concerning the structure of this movie, I think it helps the spectator to forget about his own ego and to put it aside in order to open up to the reality of the world. It borrows the structure of the “visions” usually narrated by dervishes, and the structure of their spiraling and whirling dances. The characters change, but the theme remains the same: Love, under many forms. As the famous Sufi Ibn Arabi said: "My heart can be pasture for deer and a convent for monks, a temple for idols and a Kaaba for the pilgrims. It is both the tables of the Torah and the Koran. It professes the religion of Love wherever its caravans are heading. Love is my law. Love is my faith."

What is Sufism?

Fundamentalism and fanaticism do not represent Islam, just as the inquisition did not represent the faith of Jesus. Nowadays one can feel quite lost and confused in front of this growing wave of defiance and hatred towards Islam. Sufism stands against all forms of fanaticism. Sufism is the Islam of the mystics; it is the tenderness of Islam. But in order to give a better definition, let me use this Sufi saying: "There are as many ways to God as the number of human beings on earth." This quote alone is a representation of the vision of Sufism.

One could also say that Sufism is the pulsating heart of Islam. Far from being a marginal phenomenon, it is the esoteric dimension of the Islamic message. Abou Hassan Al Nouri, a great Sufi, once said: "Sufism is the renouncement of all selfish pleasures," because true Love cannot be selfish. He also said, "A true Sufi has no possessions, and he himself is possessed by nothing." Love has many shapes in the movie. The example of Ishtar, the little girl who was born from the sand, like the Arabic language, is reminiscent of the letter "Waw", which in Arabic means "and." The Sufis call it the letter of Love, because without it, nothing can come together. We say "the sea and the sky," "Man and Woman." The "Waw" is the meeting place, thus it is the place of Love. It is also the letter of the traveler, because it gathers together things and beings.

What is a dervish?

The word "dervish" means "Sufi" in Persian. But with time, it was used to refer to those who chose poverty and wandering. They put the world aside and enter into a quest of poverty and Love. There are many types of dervishes. I did not want to address the different brotherhoods, but I wanted to give an idea of what seems alive in the Islamic-Arab culture: this endless quest for the Absolute and the Infinite. Throughout history, there have been kings who have become dervishes, like this Prince, who is famous in Afghanistan. As Gibran, the author of The Prophet said: "The Prince of all Princes is he who finds his throne in the heart of a dervish." The dervishes go even farther than that. One of them once said: "I no longer visit the mosque or the temple, I am a servant of Love, I am in Love with Your beauty." One cannot understand the aesthetics of Islamic Culture without studying Sufi texts. Dervishes repeat the following quote of the Prophet Mohammad like a motto: "God is beautiful and He loves beauty." And here is what dervishes sing to express their state of Love:

The butterfly throws itself into the burning fire
If you must love, then you will need that much courage
At each step, the heart is pushed to its limits,
At each breath, it is tested,
If you must love, then you will need that much courage.

By their actions, dervishes free Islam of certain dogmatic interpretations, just like this auburn dervish in the movie, who is attracted by the minaret, and tries to clear the “dust” off it with a broom. In another scene, he is in a mosque half-buried in the sand and he tries to get it out of its tomb by removing the sand with his mere basket.

What does the desert mean to you?

There is a Tuareg proverb that says: "There are lands that are full of water for the well-being of the body, and lands that are full of sand for the well-being of the soul." The desert is a literary field and a field of abstraction at the same time. It is one of the rare places where the infinitely small, that is a speck of sand, and the infinitely big, and that is billions of specks of sand, meet. It is also a place where one can have a true sense of the Universe and of its scale. The desert also evokes the Arabic language, which bears the memory of its origins. In every Arabic word, there is a bit of flowing sand. It is also one of the main sources of Arabic love poetry. In all of my three movies, which form a trilogy, The Wanderers of the Desert, The Dove’s Lost Necklace, and today, Bab’Aziz, The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul, the desert is a character in itself.

This movie was shot in both the Iranian central desert, near Annarak, and in the Tunisian desert, in Tataouine. The desert imposed its law upon us. The temperature sometimes reached 50°C! We used to leave the shelter of the old lead mine, where we camped, at around four o’clock in the morning. We worked until nine-thirty or ten o’clock in the morning; after that, the sand became too hot and the light became bright like a white screen that wiped out every detail, not to mention the hospitality of the scorpions! We used to spend the rest of the day in the camp, and resumed work at sunset. The scenes were shot only once, because it was impossible to recreate the virginity of the sand after the actors had stepped on it. When we were not satisfied with a scene, we had to move the set to a spot that was unmarked. I will not dwell on the troubles we had during this shooting which took place on very long distances, in Iran as well as in Tunisia: Kashan, Yazd, Kerman, the Annarak desert and of course the antique city of Bam, where the scene of the final gathering of the dervishes was shot. An earthquake destroyed this city a few months later. In Tunisia, we shot in Tunis, in Korba, in Walad Sultan and Tataouine.

In the same sequence, you can see a character walking in a palace in Tunis, looking out of a window at a landscape in Iran. These tricks are not exceptional and they speak of the pluralistic dimension of the movie, which was co-produced by French, Iranian and Tunisian companies among other ones. But they tell the story of the movie better than a thousand speeches, or should I say that they define its territory: Bab’Aziz wanders through the Arab-Islamic world. And it is this moving world (moving like the desert, never really different and never quite the same) that stretches between the window of the Tunisian palace and the Iranian landscape. This world is a real parable, if we take on the idea that cinema is the space-time that is located between the point where we are standing and the point that we are looking at. Knowing that this space-time is often referred to as "point of view," we can also say that the movie is about cinema.

What about the music?

In the Arab Culture, the poem has its cause of existence, its "raison d’ętre" — singing. Songs and music create ambivalence between presence and absence, the visible and the invisible, reality and mystery. The mystic voice runs through both the popular and scholarly traditions of Arab, Persian, and Turkish cultures. The "baraka," the blessing, springs out of this voice and envelops and permeates humans, places and objects. Vocal music is often accompanied by dances, as in the performances of whirling dervishes, who dance with one hand directed towards the sky, in order to receive the divine blessing, and the other hand directed towards the earth, to transmit this blessing to the audience.

These sacred and popular types of music convey an extraordinary vitality and a communicative joy from Asia to Africa, from the Arab world to the Persian world. They guarantee a cohesion that asserts its unity and its desire for life. It is the image of the soul that worships God, multiple in His shapes and Unique in His form: Love, the burn of Love. It is a celebration of the joy of living, in opposition to the fundamentalist’s desire of death.

The encounter with composer Armand Amar was a rich one, and he breathed new vitality into the movie. There were all these great pieces of live music, often played by great Sufi Masters, and Armand worked on their cohesion. With him, I rekindled a very old Andalusian brotherhood! Another brotherhood reunited the Iranian, Iraqui, Tunisian, Kurdish, and Algerian actors. Parviz Shahinkhou, in spite of his eighty-six years, was the most enthusiastic of us. Miryam Hamid, an Iranian of Arab origin, who played Ishtar, kept shifting from one language to another and constantly surprised us with her curiosity and her subtle acting.

What do you think of the East and the West?

There is nothing like gardens to explain the difference between the East and the West. The western garden, visible and surrounding the house, on one hand, and the eastern garden, hidden, thus invisible, in the center of the house, on the other hand. Whether in Cairo, Grenada, Marrakech or Tunis, this Islamic conception of gardens always prevails. A garden can only be hidden, because it is a place for contemplation and meditation, where the mind escapes. The purpose of the classical western garden, as the one conceived for Louis XIV or for the Medici family, is to dominate the surrounding world, which explains the lines of perspective that lead to the horizon. It is a garden of Mastery. Unlike the classical western garden or the Japanese landscape garden, that encourages the relaxation of thought, the Oriental invisible garden stimulates the contemplation of one’s inner soul. But all gardens are issued of several great traditions and cultures, and are all necessary for the enrichment of the world.

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Nacer Khemir