Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 27, 2017 8:45 pm 
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At play and at play

Italian documentary filmmaker Yuri Ancarani's film The Challenge is a matter of access. He had it, but he also keeps his distance. He shot wealthy Qatari men at play - serious play, that costs serious money. It is a rare and special scene, but Ancarani isn't seeking to tell you all about it; it's simply material he works with visually. His interest is in ritual, and repeated gestures, and odd customs, and surreal situations.

The main focus is their pursuit, now utterly altered by the introduction of modern gadgetry such as lightweight cameras and SUVs, of the ancient Arabian gentleman's sport of falconry. We also see a man driving a Lamborghini with a leopard in the passenger seat; and we see a group riding gold Harley Davidson bikes, dressed for once not in white thawbs and kufiyas but jeans and biker jackets. The falconers buy their special birds for up to 87,000 riyals ($24,000) via an auction they view on flatscreen TV as they bid by smart phone. We fly inside a posh private plane fitted with not passenger seats but rows of perches for flacons. We see men share a tasty meal of meat, rice, and side dishes in the traditional way, with the right hand only, the fingers molding the rice into a ball.

There are closeups of men's faces, young, dark, handsome, ancestrally Arabian, with perfectly trimmed short beard. Do they trim it themselves or, more likely, have a barber come in every morning? But for all this intimacy, there is no sense of entering the personal lives of these men. Ancarani's film is more like an art piece, shifting from scene to scene in a distancing way, occasionally bringing in soaring music, often offering nothing but ambient sound or the childish, repetitious dialogue of the 'sportsman' or buyers, saying nothing but 'that's a good one,' 'it's worth the price,' or most often the phrase 'ma shaa' Allah', which in this context is just a muslim way of saying 'wow!'

Mike D'Angelo wrote in Letterbox'd: "My kind of documentary: utterly devoid of exposition (or even basic contextualization), formally adventurous, offhandedly witty (love the sharp cut to a tranquil landscape shot that happens mid-car accident, just as a dude witnessing the vehicle roll over clutches his hands to his head in shock), confident enough to let viewers intuit the film's meaning/intention/big idea."

It is a confidently accomplished film and an elegant one. It's also an alarming one that makes its very rich subjects look like morons. But they look good too. Their cars and their hooded birds and they are handsome, and surreal. Jonathan Romney of Film Comment wrote: "the film is so elegantly shot, with heightened attention to staging and symmetry, that at first thought I was watching a gallery-art fabulation à la Matthew Barney. But no. . ." Material to play with, too good to be true. And in a sense itself making this film is as idle a kind of play as the "shaykhs'" with their dangerous SUV races, their falcons, and their Lamborghinis. And the photographs from the camera attached to a bird of prey on the hunt for a pigeon: the cinema of the future!

The Challenge, 69 mins., debuted at Locarno where it won the Special Jury Prize and was nominated for the Golden Leopard. Ten other international festivals, including the FSLC-MoMA New Directors/New Films (NYC), as part of which it was screened for this review.

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