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Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "Koran by Heart" Director Greg Barker

By Indiewire Staff | Indiewire April 8, 2011 at 7:22AM

A global contest reading of the Quran by young Muslim children that takes place in Cairo, Egypt annually during Ramadan. A coming of age story about Muslim kids in modern times. [Synopsis courtesy of imdb.com]
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A global contest reading of the Quran by young Muslim children that takes place in Cairo, Egypt annually during Ramadan. A coming of age story about Muslim kids in modern times. [Synopsis courtesy of imdb.com]

"Koran by Heart"
World Documentary
Director(s): Greg Barker
Producer(s): Julie Goldman, John Battsek, Greg Barker
Editor: Langdon F. Page
Director of Photography: Frank-Peter Lehmann
Executive Producer: Shelia Nevins, Nancy Abraham
Composer: Claude Chalhoub
Co-Producer: Chetin Chabuk, Christopher Buchanan
Line Porducer: Diane Becker

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Tribeca Narrative, Documentary and Viewpoints sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

Responses courtesy of "Koran by Heart" Director Greg Barker.

Getting a big break...

I've always been drawn to telling stories about the wider world, ever since I was a kid and my dad was in the navy, sending home letters and grand tales about life overseas. As soon as I could, I left my home in Southern California, first for college in Washington, DC and then grad school in London. There, I worked in news before a top documentary filmmaker took a chance and gave me a job. My first assignment was to set up a night aerial shoot through the burning oil fires of Kuwait - it was harrowing and exhilarating - and I was hooked on documentary filmmaking.

The reasons for focusing on the Koran...

Sheila Nevins at HBO suggested the idea to me and my producers, Julie Goldman and John Battsek. I've traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Islamic nations and we had been looking for a film that somehow spoke to the struggles between modernity and fundamentalism within modern Islam. Sheila had a hunch that a spelling-bee type contest for kids was the perfect "way in" to what could be a complicated and obscure subject. As usual, Sheila's instincts were spot-on.

We focused on Cairo, which hosts the world's oldest, and arguably most prestigious, Koran-reciting contest each year during Ramadan. It draws over 110 students as young as age seven from Islamic countries around the world. It's sort of an Olympics of Koranic recitation. My co-producer Chris Buchanan and I went to Egypt, and with the help of our amazing local producer Mohammed Yousri, we somehow managed to convince the powers-that-be at the ancient Al-Azhar University and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to give us full access to the competition. Of course, the film evolved as we began to meet the kids themselves, especially the three amazing ten-year-olds who would become the main characters in the film: two boys from Tajikistan and Senegal and a little girl from Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Through their incredible stories, the film evolved to be about the challenges facing the next generation of Muslims, and the choices we all make over how to educate our kids.

What type of documentary is this?

It's a competition film, first and foremost, and I wanted it to have a rough-around-the-edges, unexpected feel. At the same time, it's the journey-of-a-lifetime for many of these kids, traveling from remote villages to the mega-city that is Cairo. I wanted it to also feel like an epic, wide-eyed adventure.

How to make the Koran accessible...

By far the greatest challenge was finding a way to make the ancient Islamic art of Koranic recitation accessible to a non-Muslim, Western audience. To Western ears, it sounds like singing - think of the call to prayer - but to Muslims, reciting the Koran is a holy art, an act that actually recreates the moment of revelation. Again, the kids were the crucial way in, and by the end of the film, I think audiences will not only know a bit more about the Koran but they'll also have an opinion about who they want to win.

The moment everything came together...

I remember the first time I heard 10-year-old Nabiollah, a boy from a remote village in Tajikistan, recite the Koran. Something about his voice, and the innocence and beauty of his recitation, brought tears to my eyes. From that moment, I knew we had a film.

Any future projects?

More adventures!

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