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Meet the SXSW Filmmakers #42: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi Sheds Light On Her Islam Documentary 'Touba'

By Indiewire | Indiewire March 7, 2013 at 7:48AM

Elizabeth Chai Casarhelyi's documentary feature "Touba" follows the pilgrimage of over one million Sufi Muslims, a subject which she believes is in dire need of a new perspective on a worldwide scale. Featuring unparalleled access and devotion to its subjects and beautiful cinematography, the film attempts to offer a different glimpse of Islam than those dominating today's headlines with the grace its subjects deserve.
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Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Elizabeth Chai Casarhelyi's documentary feature "Touba" follows the pilgrimage of over one million Sufi Muslims, a subject which she believes is in dire need of a new perspective on a worldwide scale. Featuring unparalleled access and devotion to its subjects and beautiful cinematography, the film attempts to offer a different glimpse of Islam than those dominating today's headlines with the grace its subjects deserve.

What is it about? 'Touba' follows the passionate spiritual journey of one million Sufi Muslims from around the world--the annual Grand Magaal pilgrimage to the sacred city of Touba in central Senegal, to pay homage to spiritual master Cheikh Amadou Bamba (1853-1927). Bamba’s non-violent resistance to the French colonial persecution of Muslims in the late 19th century inspired a national movement and ensured religious freedom. This immersive impressionistic film takes us inside the exotic landscape of Touba and the rarely seen Mouride Brotherhood--one of West Africa’s most elusive organizations and one of the world’s largest Sufi Muslim communities.

About the filmmaker: I am a director and producer based in New York City, with Hungarian, Chinese, and Brazilian roots. I grew up between New York City and Rio de Janiero and graduated from Princeton. After working at ABC’s ‘World News Tonight,’ I directed my first documentary ‘A Normal Life,’ about young Kosovars who came of age during the war, which won the Best Documentary award at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival. I also directed ‘Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love.’ ‘Touba’ is my third feature documentary. As a filmmaker, I seek to create work that explores stories about marginalized subjects which, when brought to light, can inspire change and have a direct impact on how we understand our world.

What else do you want audiences to know about your film? I discovered the city of Touba and the Grand Magaal while directing 'Youssou N’dour: I Bring What I Love.' Entering the sacred city for the first time, as a welcome outsider surrounded by thousands of devout Sufi Muslims, I was struck by their passion and wanted to bring their little-known story to a wider audience. I also hope audiences are struck by the beauty of this part of the world, so wonderfully captured by my cinematographer Scott Duncan.

Touba
Touba

I knew there was a compelling story to tell after spending time in Touba, but as with all documentary films, funding is the greatest challenge. The other challenge was a creative one: how to create a compelling cinematic narrative with mostly images, sound, music, and very little dialogue. I hope I have accomplished that.

What would you like SXSW audiences to come away with after seeing your film?
'Touba' provides a unique opportunity to experience a stunning, little-seen part of Africa that has forever changed me. I hope the film inspires a deeper understanding of the diversity of Islam.

What do you have in the works? I returned to Senegal in 2012 to document the heated democratic Presidential elections of that year. The resulting documentary film, 'Mr. President,' received a grant and fellowship from the Sundance Documentary Fund and is currently in post-production. I am also currently working on two American stories: 'Little Troopers,' a film about the impact of American soldiers’ deployments on their families who are left behind; and 'Father School,' a glimpse into the Korean American movement towards becoming better, more in-touch fathers and husbands.

Indiewire invited SXSW directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they're doing next. We'll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013 festival.

Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on March 8 for the latest profiles.


This article is related to: SXSW Film Festival, Meet the 2013 SXSW Filmmakers