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

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

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

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.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

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

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

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