South african filmmaker Francois Verster is no stranger to social consciousness. His most recent project “Dream of Shahrazad” follows the lives of various individuals in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey as they come to terms with the events we’ve come to know as the Arab Spring through the art of story telling.
Shahrazad becomes omnipresent in this film through various incarnations. We meet an impassioned Turkish conductor running a two week rehearsal program for a youth philharmonic orchestra’s performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade suite. He uses the orchestra as extended metaphor for democratic participation, reminding the students of their role as agents for change. An Egyptian theatre troupe uses traditional storytelling methods to bring to life the testimonies of mothers who lost their sons on the January 25th revolution. A visual artist with a lifelong obsession with the 1001 nights finds himself re-inspired to create and share his art through a new friendship with a Shahrazad-esque storyteller and a young Lebanese actress begins to heal from the effects the horrifying images of war she witnessed during the political instability in her country and emerges a popular internet activist.
Heavily inspired by the 1001 nights, the documentary is sectioned into four “books”: Once upon a time, Story of change, After the battle and The future of the Sultan of Shahriyar. It becomes a loom, weaving together different stories to form the rich tapestry that is the middle-eastern story telling tradition. Verster applies Shahrazad’s cunning story telling philosophy, never ending stories and starting new ones each night, to his cinematography. He cuts between frames of protest footage, beautiful paintings, silhouette animation and a kaleidoscopic collection of engaging artists as they use their work to rebuild their various nation’s moral though the power of narrative. The eye behind the camera is always silent – it graciously accepts its role as observer presenting us with images free of personal commentary hence allowing us to determine their meaning for ourselves.
The value of a voice is put into focus, drawing allusion to post-colonial studies pioneer Gayatri Spivak’s notable essay “Can the subaltern speak?”. Echoing Aimé Césaire, another influential african intellectual, a potential solution is presented to the members of the youth philharmonic orchestra urging them to “channel all [their] ambition, all [their] rebellion, into [their] songs” and “let [their] voice and songs be the weapon of those without a voice.” The authenticity of this voice is also put into question. One of the troupes actors makes an interesting observation on the americanization mainstream acting in the country; after witnessing protesters’ raw yet eloquently expression of emotion in Tahir square and reflecting on their acting’s current form, he notes sadly: “we can neither express ourselves nor the society we live in”. Thus the troupe’s desire to create a new form of theatre that embodies Egyptian culture.
None of the film’s subjects are introduced by name – the stories they carry take the foreground. We have grown used to Arab world as object, it is always spoken off in most media outlets. In this documentary it speaks to us for itself. Verster entertains a wide array of interesting issues. Chief among those is the transformative power of storytelling. It allows all the artists to take pain and loss and turn it into harmony. Bound by shared trauma, the inhabitants of these nations now posses a new kind of consciousness: war brings the need to be reminded that one is alive, that they matter so they speak to ears now that are more open to listening because they too need the strength these tales carry, if not a sense of recognition and understanding in the other.