Essay submission for my Film in South Africa course at the University of Cape Town located in South Africa.
If art is the means by which one is able to express one’s self, then poetry must be the language of expression. Francois Verster, the director of The Dream of Shahrazad (2014), speaks this language to creatively construct a documentary that is both beautiful to watch and powerful in its ability to share with its viewers a rich and deep history. Paying homage to The Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights, the documentary uses this story as metaphor for the entirety of the film. While beginning and ending the documentary with music, Francois Verster uses various other forms of art to keep viewers eager and curious for more as the documentary jumps from scene to scene. This abstract approach allows The Dream of Shahrazad to carefully utilize music, different forms of storytelling, and visual impressions as a means of political expression. By deploying poetic devices, Verster manages to tell historical events of a political nation in a way that is beyond a simple narration of events as can be expected in a narrative piece. This paper argues that Verster uses the mode of poetic documentary as a political tool to portray real things in an authentic manner by utilizing the elements of music, politics, and documentary storytelling. Verster refuses to abide by the rules that once governed the art of filmmaking, which often dictated that directors place “artistic quality” as a subordinate to the “content.” These films told their “moral arguments” in a clear and direct manner that allotted viewers with purposeful “unobstructed” views of reality (Verster, 2007: 110). Verster, however, creates his own style of filmmaking, which is both demanding of the viewers’ attention and unique in its presentation. I hope to dissect this unique style of filmmaking by analyzing various sequences from The Dream of Shahrazad in order to shed light on the relationship between music, politics, and documentary storytelling in the film.
Immediately exhibiting the documentary’s connection to music, Verster begins The Dream of Shahrazad with conductor Cem Mansur’s rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade Suite. In this symphonic suite, Rimsky-Korsakov infuses Middle Eastern “stylistic devices” and his Russian heritage to exemplify the “decorative and curvaceous” nature of Arabian music (Locke, 2007: 486). Seemingly exotic in style, Rimsky-Korsakov allows the music to tell the story of The Thousand and One Nights and uses the instrument to set the mystical and intense mood. In this particular portrayal, Mansur chooses a violin soloist to act as Shahrazad (also spelt Scheherazade by some authors). Moreover, the music then transitions into the famous story of Shahrazad and the intense political movements that were happening in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, specifically Turkey and Lebanon. Thus, The Dream of Shahrazad creates a web that connects the aforementioned events’ past and present to individuals who are uniquely linked to The Thousand and One Nights. The film symbolizes an artistic escape from oppression forcing viewers to rethink the way in which they interpret art and view its interaction with political change. As a poetic piece, it contains both a modernity and “fragmented nature” of the subject. This mode demands that director focuses on treating the “aesthetic expression of aspects as real” (Ward, 2012: 14). The Dream of Shahrazad’s fragmented nature and portrayal of real things is what makes it so effective. In addition, it embraces its powerful voice as a politically driven documentary to inform and educate viewers of a “fractured nation” (Verster, 2007: 115).
In book one, this paper’s first analytical point of departure, we are introduced to an older woman who states she learned the power of storytelling as a kid. In her interview, she explains that when she was first able to work, her father would sometimes beat her. To escape the reality of crying, she would tell her siblings long tales describing what happened and would be transported to new emotions. She explains that The Thousand and One Nights taught her and others during this time the significance of storytelling and the power of using your imagination as a vehicle to go through life optimistically. I appreciate this statement because it coincides with Marcus’ definition of geographical imagination. Marcus describes this imagination as the “spatial knowledge, real or abstract that allows individuals to imagine a place” (Marcus, 2009: 481). Verster intentionally uses this woman’s storytelling to highlight the role that storytelling and imagination plays during troubling or cruel times. Her being beaten arguably mirrors the violent political climate in Egypt. However, just as in The Thousand and One Nights, the curiosity for more and the things unknown, or imagination, allows the people to escape their reality and look at the promise that the future brings. The scene with the woman then cuts to quick shots of Egypt, juxtaposing the art of storytelling with reality. Despite one’s imagination, real life is always nearby.
Moving onward, there is a brief moment following the kids’ story of Aladdin, when Verster transitions this frame into a cartoon of Aladdin rubbing on the lamp calling out the genie. Following the genie’s release, Egypt’s ill and injured are shown right before our eyes. Connecting Aladdin’s story to that of the people, the visual of the lamp implies that the people might have caused this situation for themselves. Such a connection is both saddening and disheartening at the implication that this pain and sorrow has been made on the account of Egypt’s own people. It cannot be denied that the demanding of a new political system brought struggle and misery to the citizens of this state, which marks only the beginning of this horror, as they were only at the commencement of the new democratic revolution. Furthermore, as bells ring cheerfully, Egypt’s wounded are being displayed once more. It is almost as if the resistance is being captured in a light and dreamlike manner. One might think that the bells jingling in this instance signify the coming of change for the people of Egypt, but this is not shown in the imagery of the people. As the bells continue to ring, the camera pans from the bottom of a staircase to the top. The stairs provide a glimmer of hope to the nightmare that the people have been enduring. Out of their struggle and misery, there are signs of victory and triumph to come as they move upward on their journeys.
In looking at a third sequence, Verster balances music, truth, and politics. By properly balancing these elements, Verster’s artistic approach allows for a “personal exploration within a political film” (Verster, 2007: 112). This style of film, though unconventional, can be seen as a political tool, which allows the us as the public to peer into “under-represented” or “unseen worlds” (Verster, 2007: 114). Returning the sequence itself, which is also in book one, we are provided with two ways of surviving darkness and the evils of the world. Firstly, one can accept it and become a part of this evil or secondly, one has to distinguish those who are not filled with evil and help them to endure it. Verster allows The Thousand and One Nights’ overarching metaphor to provide viewers with a clear, yet very complex view into the choices Egyptians are being forced to make. Before this internal conflict can be resolved, the scene intensifies as we see a visual depiction of Aladdin with his lamp being attacked. It is at this moment when Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade Suite comes roaring through as rapid shots of the Egyptian revolution are woven into Aladdin’s battle with evil. Getting louder and louder, the heavy horns and other instruments amplify Aladdin’s fight, which are then joined by the screams and wails of the people of Egypt. This sequence is extremely intense and authoritative, and unapologetically brings the viewer into the disorder and chaos that is occurring. Referring back to the choices offered earlier, either fate poses a dilemma for those who wish to live in the ‘New Egypt,’ requiring that they either accept it or fight back to save themselves and others from it. Verster almost requests that viewers too not turn away from the truth and align themselves with a position or side as well. As the scene both visually and musically reaches its panic-stricken peak or dramatical climax, all of a sudden the music then gracefully falls to a mellow point as a clip of water is being shown. The music and visual of the water, often seen as a sign of rebirth or cleansing, suggest that after the storm that Egypt has endured, a new beginning is to commence for the country.
In straying away from a sequence-by-sequence analysis, I wish to point out one thing that I find extremely interesting about this film, which is the role and significance of women. The various women shown throughout the film not only reflect the socio-politics within the Middle East, but are also used as mediums for documentary storytelling. These women draw connections to Shahrazad and provide a natural flow to the documentary itself. We can see this clearly in the remaining three books, where we are introduced to many depictions of women. For example, we meet a passionate painter who expresses a strong love and connection with The Thousand and One Nights. He says that the story itself is a snapshot of Middle Eastern culture, providing glimpses of romance, politics, and beauty. In describing his near obsession with Shahrazad, visuals of his paintings are shown. While he paints Shahrazad in diverse ways, she is most often naked as he finds that “the truth is always naked” (Dream of Shahrazad, 2014). The image of Shahrazad in this instance and throughout the film it can be assumed symbolizes truth and innocence. Her very being embodies the power of storytelling. After the painter says that he could not imagine himself with a woman that is not like Shahrazad, the documentary proceeds with visual expressions of various women in conjunction with his portraits of Shahrazad. Thus, we as viewers can now look at the women throughout this documentary as a representation or product of Shahrazad. Not only this, but it is women who might be the ones expected to lead the Middle East out of these dark times and move the country into a new era.
In continuing with the theme of women, it is important to note specific women in the documentary and show their relevance to the relationship between music, politics, and documentary storytelling. In addition to the painter’s scene, in book two we come into contact with a young actress scorned by the Lebanese War in 2006. She is conflicted both politically and artistically and believes no one is making a difference. Though she herself does not know what to do to change the current situation, she knows that something must be done to save both Egypt and Lebanon. Despite the chaos of the current situation, she allows her artistic and acting ability to drive her forward just as Shahrazad in The Thousand and One Nights. When her scene transitions into a plane taking off, one can be led to think that the future in which she spoke of is near or has left. The plane symbolizes worlds that exist outside of her own and demonstrates the interconnectedness of Middle Eastern struggles. In addition, the imagery of the plane combined with her internal struggle and confusion coupled with an awareness of the Middle Eastern ‘crisis’ might also reflect some sort of resolution or peace that is in store for the political states of these countries. Neither her own story or Egypt’s story is finished at this point and mirrors Shahrazad’s storytelling ability and causes one to think that there is more to come. The symbols and representations revealed here and in other parts of the film repeatedly exhibit a specific optimism for the fate of the Middle East.
There’s a specific moment in book three, in which the painter proclaims the return of Shahrazad in the identity of the young female storyteller. This is extremely profound as he mentioned earlier in the film that Egypt was falling ill both politically and culturally, which left him without an inspiration to paint for years. Thus, at the turn of the Revolution, Shahrazad, the young woman, returns and he is inspired to paint once again after the formation of their friendship. Their friendship marked a turning point in each of their lives. Verster uses this relationship as a direct reflection of Egypt’s political timeline and signifies a new beginning of the political state. In concurrence with the return of Shahrazad, Egypt is expected to regain its political strength and culture back. The music during this scene is calm and tranquil, which supports the idea that things are back to normal for the country and the once tumultuous political climate is quiet. In addition, the return of Shahrazad, the painter states, “symbolizes the return of all of the eternal values of the society, reminding them of how wonderful their culture once was” (Dream of Shahrazad, 2014). Furthermore, the scene then moves to the camera panning upward revealing plants swaying in the wind. As the soft music continues in the background and the plants dance in the wind, society and peace in Egypt seems to have been restored.
Grouping together the scenes and frames within book four, entitled “The future of the Sultan Shahriyar,” I wish to bring the analyzing of the various sequences to a close. After looking at the name of the introductory title slide, I realized something I had not noticed before. The Sultan in this documentary can possibly be deemed as a representation of the Middle Eastern political state. By the story’s end, the Sultan’s rage is calmed by the wise Shahrazad. The Middle Eastern political climate, the Sultan, comes to a state of ease after enduring the people’s revolution, Shahrazad. Another important thing to note is the significance of the books and their names, which group ideas and events as a set in a contextual and chronological order. Thus, I came to realize that everything in this film as with the music and methods of documentary storytelling is intentional and serves a layered purpose. In the end, we see all of the film’s characters ignited with passion after having gone through their own breakthrough, which allows them to contribute to the growth of the political state. The young actress now a political and media figure and even the painter himself now identifies as Shahrazad. Beyond this, we see the female violinist who instrumentally plays Shahrazad gain confidence in her craft and finds strength in her voice, the music. Shahrazad, the violinist, is no longer silent and uses her strength to save her people. As the documentary comes to an end with the music of the orchestra in the background, ultimately with the sound of the violin, one is led to imagine if the optimism promised throughout the film has actually come into fruition. Verster then leaves viewers with the idea that the “end never arrives” and that it is only the “dream which sustains” (Dream of Shahrazad, 2014).
I think it is critical to highlight the work of one author who claimed that the numerous fictional depictions and writings of Shahrazad sought to “rewrite traditional Arabic folktales from a gender sensitive perspective” (Morsy, 2007: 234). While Morsy in her piece specifically focuses on Arab women writers, her argument is still significant as she deemed that the early and contemporary female renditions contrast each other (Morsy, 2007: 231). Moreover, Morsy herself views The Thousand and One Nights as a connection between “fictional discourse and the prolonging of life” and says that what early Western and Arab writers had in common was that they saw Shahrazad as “weaver of endless narratives” rather than as an “organic character.” She then celebrates the work of modern Arabic women writers who have “intervened” with these past depictions of Shahrazad and have given life back to her character. The new wave of contemporary writers “engages in the struggle for narrative primacy and its subsequent social, cultural, and political transformation.” They take back the image of Shahrazad and treat her as an “agent of major social and political change” (Morsy, 2007: 234). Though she focuses on women, Verster would be included in this powerful statement. He, like the women Morsy is describing, shares a sincere connection with Shahrazad in his documentary and while his film is not a literary work, it does so in a meaningful way that is both poetic and creative. Using music, politics, and documentary storytelling, he immortalizes Shahrazad not only by using The Thousand and One Nights as the central metaphor, but also with her connection with the various characters we are introduced to in the documentary.
Verster’s implementation of the poetic style of documentary to capture The Thousand and One Nights is the necessary “intervention” of past works that sought out to depict Shahrazad, in which Morsy wrote of. By considering The Dream of Shahrazad to be a personal film, it is expected to “fulfill a genuinely beneficial political role.” The documentary looks at the intersectionality of a racially and economically divided state and tries to new find ways of combining the historical realities of Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey in order to fulfill its “social purpose” (Verster, 2007: 123). Its artistic and cultural form of expression allows it to reflect a greater sense of reality. Thus, with the use of music, documentary storytelling, and politics the film does exactly what it set out to do and is able to interact with highly “objective forms of society” in pursuance of validating morality and achieving “authenticity” (Verster, 2007: 124). The Dream of Shahrazad redefines the ways in which a story should be told and exhibits the strength of documentaries as tools for socio-political purposes. The integration of music, politics, and documentary storytelling offers Verster an artistic freedom to depict and tell real stories of people and the political climate in the Middle East in an unpredictable and raw way.
Dream of Shahrazad [Film]. 2014. Directed by Francois Verster, South Africa: Undercurrent Film & Television, Fireworx Media Production
Locke, R.P., 2007. A broader view of musical exoticism. The Journal of Musicology, 24(4), pp. 477-521.
Marcus, A.P., 2009. Brazilian Immigration To The United States And The Geographical Imagination*. Geographical Review, 99(4), pp. 481-498.
Morsy, F.I., 2007. Thus Spoke Shahrazad: Contemporary Arab Women’s Recent Rewritings of the Night. genre 28, pp. 231-248.
Verster, F., 2007. Redefining the Political: A Short Overview and Some Thoughts on Personal Documentary Films from the New South Africa. In M. P. Botha, ed. Marginal Lives and Painful Pasts: South African Cinema After Apartheid, pp. 107-127.
Ward, P., 2012. Documentary: the margins of reality (Vol. 29). Columbia University Press, pp. 6-31.
Feature photo by The Dream of Shahrazad team via The Source