Eihab Boraie meets award-winning director Francois Verster as he debuts his documentary about the Arab Spring at D-CAF. Here, they discuss the unique approach of letting his subjects do the talking, telling their tales without imposing a narrative.
The tales of One Thousand and One Nights as told by Shahrazad are familiar from many of our childhoods; these fables have been recounted endlessly, well beyond their disputed origins. These magical tales go far beyond religious divides and unify the children of the Arab world, all the while enthralling and inspiring international audiences to this day. Any attempt to adapt all of the stories into one film would be impossible, so alternate approaches to adapt the tales are needed. Ambitiously taking on this project is South African director Francois Verster, who graciously spent an afternoon with me conversing about his documentary, The Dream of Shahrazad ahead of its Cairo debut at the D-CAF Festival. Verster's interpretation is a documentary of the turbulent times recently shared between Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon, but buried within its abstract context you will find remnants of the beloved stories of Sharazad.
Francois Verster is a 46-year old award winning director who, from childhood, cherished the collection of classic Arab tales immortalised in One Thousand and One Nights. “My first exposure to the stories were of of Aladdin and Sindbad, and Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves,” reminisces Verster. In a post 9/11, Islamophobic world, Verster was inspired to use the context of Shahrazad to dismiss the ludacris notion that all Arabs are terrorists. Using Sharahzad's tales as a metaphor, Verster set out in 2006 in search of modern-day Arab storytellers, and combined their narratives with his passion for music. “Originally I was going to follow an Iranian conductor leading up to a performance in Tehran… That didn’t work out for a lot of reasons, part one of which was that our Iranian producer got jailed,” explains Verster.
Overcoming this obstacle, Verster decided instead to follow a Turkish conductor, Cem Mansur, preparing a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and using “this piece of music as a structure for the film,” in order to unify all of the stories captured within the documentary. However, as luck would have it, Verster's documentary would have to adapt again; during filming, the Arab Spring blossomed, forcing the director to reconsider the direction the documentary was taking.
Growing up in South Africa, Verster was no stranger to uprisings; his native land freed itself from the shackles of apartheid in 1994. According to Verster, “South Africans followed the so-called Egyptian revolution with a huge amount of interest, because in 1994 there was a radical movement; it wasn’t really a revolution but rather a negotiated settlement to start over from a blank slate. This led to the creation of South Africa’s constitution which is probably amongst the most progressive constitutions in the world in regards of gay rights, women’s rights and possibly animal rights. It tries to avoid the mistakes of the past and serve the interests of not only of the majority but of the minority as well.” When asked if there were any similarities that could be drawn between what transpired in South Africa with Egypt, Verster believes that, “in South Africa, racism was legally inscribed...I mean the whole legal system was overhauled. I think in Egypt it wasn’t a matter of the whole legal system being overruled, as people trying to grasp what the law should be. It wasn’t like starting from scratch and redesigning and writing an entirely new constitution; in South Africa, black people had never had the right to vote which is why the new constitution was such a radical departure.”
Having experienced his own country's awakening, Verster wasn’t deterred from pushing through with his project despite the on-ground dangers associated with mass protests. Instead of proving to be an obstacle, the revolution ended up making this documentary more interesting and easier to capture, as filming restrictions on the streets no longer seemed to matter when law enforcement cowered in the faces of millions calling for change. The revolution inspired the silent masses to feel free enough to speak their minds, resulting in an outpouring of willing participants with courageous stories to tell.
In order to understand whether the The Dream of Shahrazad is a successful documentary, one must first understand the origins of the Shahrazad story. It begins with a Persian king driven into a bloody rampage after discovering is first wife was unfaithful. Wanting to prevent history from repeating itself, the king decided he would marry a new virgin each day and after doing so would behead her the next day. This disturbing routine only came to halt when the king met Shahrazad, as on their first night, Shahrazad convinced the king to allow her to tell her sister one last story before nightfall. Listening in, the king was completely captivated by Shahrazad's fanciful storytelling, and when day broke and the tale had yet to be finished. The king decided to spare her life until she finished the story, but the following night after the tale was complete, she launched immediately into an equally interesting second story, that was once again interrupted by daybreak. This cycle would continue for a 1000 nights; many of the stories had no endings, yet they prolonged her life from the twisted king. Staying true to that same spirit, this documentary is collection of Arab storytellers from different countries, background and professions. Some stories have clear endings, and some don’t, but all are captured, making The Dream of Sharahzad an important document of a pivotal moment in Arab history.
Watching the film at D-CAF left me quite conflicted; I am Canadian-Egyptian, and the Canadian in me felt that it was a powerful documentary, filled with entrancing stories that showcased the evolution of the Arabian people before, during, and after the Arab Spring. I particularly liked the inclusion of powerful women making strong statements and reaffirmed that embodiments of Shahrazad's spirit live on. The use of music helped establish chapters through various movements giving the film structure while humanising Arabs, who all too often get painted in the media as terrorists. It invites the viewer to come up with their own endings, never offering concrete facts or giving any indication of whether or not the revolution succeeded. According to Verster, “The film explicitly deals with the idea of endings and how to provide an ending… a lot of Shahrazad’s stories themselves were not finished so I have this idea that happy endings are very dangerous because they’re fantasies.”
At the same time, the Egyptian in me found it extremely difficult to watch. Although the music gave it structure, it also amplified graphic videos. Every time the orchestra reached the peak of its crescendo a wave of sensitive revolution/torture footage would flash on screen. At times it felt like I was Alex in A Clockwork Orange, forced to watch graphic videos while listening to classical music. However, this is but one opinion, as The Dream of Shahrazad was awarded the Al-Hussein Abou-Deif Prize for the Best Freedom Film at the fourth edition of the Luxor Film Festival. It was roughly an hour and forty minutes of stories that Arabs are familiar with, but are rarely seen documented. After the film ended I talked with one of the Egyptian actors in the film, Ahmed Shoukry, who put all of it in perspective for me saying, “I think the only statement the film is making, if there is any, is that it is ...to be continued.”
Just like Shahrazad, the Arab people continue to live each day under the threat of sudden death; when that hopefully changes, I think Arabs will be happy to see a documentary that didn’t come to a conclusion for them, especially when they are still in the process of figuring out their own ending.