Sunday, March 03, 2013

Nacer Khemir's Desert Trilogy

Nacer Khemir’s Desert Trilogy:

Wanderers of the Desert (1986)
The Dove’s Lost Necklace (1992)
Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul (2005)

All three films have a wonderful myth + fable structure which incorporates motifs of journey and death. Music is also a key component and plays the biggest part in Bab’Aziz, a film infused with Sufi music. As the title of the trilogy indicates, the films are set against a desert background. In an interview, Nacer Khemir explains the beauty that comes with filming in a desert:

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.

The Wanderers of the Desert

A bus drops a teacher off in the middle of the desert. The village that he is looking for doesn’t appear to exist.

But it does. The village exists even though it is mostly empty because the village men often disappear to wander off in the desert for days on end.

The concept of a journey is a key ingredient in The Wanderers of the Desert where characters yearn to leave for far-off lands, especially for Cordoba which is seen as the ultimate pilgrimage.

Myths and fables are found in almost every frame as the film feels similar to the multiple layered structure of One Thousand and One Nights. In fact, at certain moments, fairy tales manifest themselves into reality such as the appearance of Sinbad’s boat:

The Dove’s Lost Neckless

Hassan (Navin Chowdhry), a calligrapher, queries many wise men to gain their wisdom about the meaning of love. One elder tells Hassan that the Arabic language has 60 different words to describe love. At first, Hassan believes the discovery of all 60 words would bring him closer to an understanding of love. Unfortunately, he remains stuck at 35 words but his hopes are boosted by finding a single partly burnt page from a book about love. That page makes makes him yearn for the “Princess of Samarkand”, who haunts his dreams. He goes on a quest to find the book and perhaps his princess along the way.

The film is garnished with many thoughtful philosophical dialogues:

The Beginning is easy but the end is hard.

The above words are applicable to life and stories in general but they also perfectly describe the structure of all three films. The beginning of each film appears to be simplistic but the complexity of life is only revealed as the characters undertake a physical, emotional and spiritual journey. At the end of each journey, death greets one of the characters. But this death is not meant to be a final stop but just one of the paths in a cosmic journey that spans generations.

People often run after a dream. One day they run across it and don’t recognize it.

A basic truth where a person often loses sight of their goal during an exhaustive quest.

Bab’Aziz: The Prince who Contemplated his Soul

Unlike other trilogies, the third film of the Desert trilogy, Bab’Aziz, is the strongest work.

This is because the desert’s beauty comes through in virtually frame of Bab’Aziz. Also, the Sufi music against the background of giant sand dunes makes for a calm and mesmerizing experience.

Once Upon a Time....

These four words have started countless stories but they appropriately describe the Desert Trilogy as well. Each film contains scenes of story telling that peels off multiple layers of fables, myths or reality. Often, a character is mesmerized by a story they are listening to and slowly find themselves drifting into the realms of myth, where they in-turn become characters in stories that will be narrated to future generations.

Nacer Khemir deserves a lot of credit for creating a visually rich form of an ancient story telling tradition that is mostly lost in contemporary cinema.

It also seems appropriate that I came across two films in the trilogy in an old fashioned way by flipping through DVD racks in the library. With the disappearance of almost all rental DVD stores in the city, finding new films is down to online digital files. But my discovery of The Wanderers in the Desert and Bab’Aziz evoked memories of a time when DVD stores and the library played a big part in discovering gems. “Once Upon a time....” indeed!

Essential Reading

Chale Nafus, Director of Programming for the Austin Film Society, perfectly describes The Wanderers in the Desert, including the Arabian Nights references.


Sam Juliano said...

Wow Sachin, you really do make quite a case for this trilogy, what HD eye candy and a true sensory appeal. This is the first I have heard of them, but what a terrific initial impression. Lovely presentation!

Sachin said...

Thanks Sam. Yes, some of the images are indeed quite remarkable. I am glad I came across these films.

Anonymous said...

Wish these films were more widely available for streaming. They were on Criterion briefly but are now hard to find again.