Most film festivals don’t offer the opportunity to become a barefooted time traveler to an ecstatic Sufi ritual, but The National Library of Israel’s recent Docu.Text 5 event, held August 18-22, specialized in unusual offerings.

“Zikr: A Sufi Revival” is a virtual reality tour of the Sufi ritual of song and dance in Tunisia, an experiential, 17-minute viewing that included singing and dancing alongside members of the Tunisian group Association de la Renaissance du Maalouf et du Chant Soufi de Sidi Bou Saïd, revealing the nuances of Sufism.

New York filmmakers Gabo Arora, John Fitzgerald, and Matthew Niederhauser traveled to Tunisia in March 2017 with the United Nations in order to provide training on how to use 360-degree cameras and virtual reality (VR) to tell stories. They ended up stumbling upon Sufi gatherings, and found themselves with their own story to tell.

Sufism is often considered an esoteric branch of Islam, explained the filmmakers. In Tunisia, however, it is deeply bound to national heritage and popular culture, and looked at as a more viable, liberal alternative in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

A gif from ‘Zikr: A Sufi Revival,’ showing the movement in the virtual reality documentary (Courtesy ‘Zikr’ filmmakers)

“We thought it was such a powerful moment that we wanted to turn it into a bigger experience,” Niederhauser said of their introduction to Sufi rituals. “Sufism is much more woven into its popular culture, especially through music and dance. They have concerts with Sufi performers that attract very large audiences, so it’s pretty open there, as compared to other more conservative Arab countries.”

In order to view the film at the National Library festival, four people at a time were invited into a temporary structure with black curtained walls and a soft carpet decorated with black and white curlicues reminiscent of Islamic culture.

All wore black headsets that covered the ears with headphones and plunged eyes into complete darkness. With remote controls in hand, and standing in a circle, viewers were told not to move around too much as they watched the 360-degree film through the headset.

From the filming of ‘Zikr: A Sufi Revival’ (Courtesy Zikr filmmakers)

The headset offered a sudden plunge into a light-flooded home in the town of Sidi Bou Saïd in the Gulf of Tunis, Tunisia, with a high dome in the middle, and crescent-shaped domes in the four corners. From the ceiling hung a golden chandelier, surrounded by white walls engraved with ornaments and tiled in blue and green.

The travelers from Jerusalem were greeted by a male adherent of Sufism dressed in the traditional white over-gown and green crocheted headdress of his faith, before moving to a Sufi shrine in Medina, where festively decorated men sang and clapped.

At the shrine, groups of men and women played on large, handheld drums, and the remote controls enabled viewers to see actual tambourines in their virtual hands that they could use to clap along to the rituals, and follow the others in their ecstatic chant.

One of the Sufi adherents from ‘Zikr: A Sufi Revival’ (Courtesy ‘Zikr’ filmmakers)

The filmmakers weren’t able to film at every Sufi location, so they focused on the ones that were open to the experience.

“They are all very spiritual people, but they were still very open to ideas, and tolerant about it,” said Fitzgerald. “Even if you just want to dance, sing, or participate, they see it as the first step of trying to understand the power of their music, and their relationship with God.”

Filming it through virtual reality technology allows viewers to more fully interact with the experience.

Another gif from ‘Zikr: A Sufi Revival’ (Courtesy ‘Zikr filmmakers)

“It gets you a better taste of what it means to be there, and potentially opens your mind a little bit more to what these people are doing,” said Niederhauser. “It is an experiment in and of itself. We have seen a lot of people who have felt emotionally impacted and more interested, especially through the music.”

“Zikr: A Sufi Revival” was first screened in 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival (official selection) and at the LA Film Festival. Other film presentations at Doc.Text 5 looked at issues of identity, memory, cultural responsibility, so-called fake news and technological and communication capabilities.

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