Africa in Motion 2011 begins with mystical grace

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Nacer Khemir's Bab’Aziz kicks off the celebration of African cinema. The launch of this year’s Africa in Motion film festival kicked off at Edinbrugh’s Filmhouse on Wednesday night with a bustling, brightly dressed crowd that would not have seemed out of place in a humming African market. The warm atmosphere of festivity and community was greatly complemented by the festival’s excellent opening film Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul.

Made in 2005 by Tunisian director Nacer Khemir, this richly shot film follows the story of a blind dervish and his granddaughter Ishtar who undertake a journey to attend the mass Sufi gathering which occurs only once every 30 years. Along the way, to distract Ishtar from the harsh conditions endured on their travels Bab’Aziz tells her the story of a prince who abandons his life of excess in order to contemplate his soul in the depths of a desert pool. In a plot that reflects the intertwining storytelling of Arabic traditions, the pair also encounters a number of intriguing characters who all have a tale to tell.

The film portrays an exploration of Sufism (the mystical expression of Islam) that is not often seen on the Western film circuit. Director Nacer Khemir has stated his aim to show the tolerant, poetic, and loving side of the Islam to counteract the damage done by extremism to the world’s perception of what the religion, and its followers, represents. Deeply spiritual without being inaccessible, the use of flowing music and dance provide an entrancing rhythm to the narrative that perfectly melds the film’s dual expressions of meditation and joyful celebration. After the extraordinary beauty of the dunes, with scenes vivid enough to make you involuntary shield sand from your eyes, it is a disconcerting experience to step out into the contrast of a chill Edinburgh evening and you get some understanding of those who long for the expanse of the desert.

The next four days of AIM 2011 lie ahead.