Holy Competition

Every year, more than 100 children from about 70 countries across the Islamic world converge on Cairo to participate in the world’s oldest and most prestigious Quran reciting competition. In the film Koran By Heart, Greg Barker follows three 10-year-old children from Senegal, Tajikistan, and the Maldives, whose stories illuminate the tensions between fundamentalist and moderate visions of Islam. He was interviewed by Becky Garrison, author of Jesus Died for This?

Becky Garrison: What drew you to the story of the International Holy Quran Competition?

Greg Barker: I'm an American, but I've lived overseas for most of my adult life. As someone who has spent a lot of time in Islamic countries, I was looking for a way of telling a human story that people here in the States could connect with about the eternal struggles in Islam between fundamentalism and modernity. The Quran competition was a very accessible way into a story. I didn't want to make a political tome; I just wanted to tell a good story about ordinary people who are religious, but are going through the same kind of internal struggles and dynamics that anyone goes through regardless of their faith.

What were the particular challenges involved in filming this documentary?

 We encountered a fair amount of skepticism from both the organizers and the parents of these children as to why a non-Muslim would want to tell the story about a Quran competition. I think they feel Islam is often misrepresented in the West and they were concerned we would make a film that would somehow be against Islam. I had Muslim-Americans on my team and worked to convince [the organizers and parents] that we just wanted to tell a story that would help change people’s attitudes in the States.

How do you convey to Western audiences the role of Quran recitation in Muslim cultures?

We had to find a very organic way of making it clear what the Quran means to Muslims. The clearest explanation came from a friend in Egypt who said, "For us, the Quran is how a Catholic might view a wine and wafer." It's not just the story of God; it is literally the word of God given to Mohammed from the angel Gabriel. So, the act of recitation is a holy act.

How are girls perceived in these reciting competitions?

There are three top competitions in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai. Of those three, Egypt, which is the historic home of Quran recitation, is the only one that allows girls and women to compete.

How has this film been received so far by the Muslim community?

After the film's premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had a number of Muslims come up to me almost in tears saying they were so pleased with how the film shined a light on their faith in a way they're not used to in this country. My hope is this film will, in its own small way, help us to increase our understanding among the faiths.

Do you see this as a vehicle for sociopolitical change?

I'm drawn to stories that have broader social and political relevance, but I’m not sure that they affect change or not. I think stories are the way we understand the world. So some people may have their eyes opened a bit by the film. Hopefully the next time they encounter a Muslim or a news story about Islam, they might have a different point of view.

Any advice you would give to young filmmakers who want to create films that can make a difference in the world?

I would say just keep your eyes open and listen to other people's stories. If you tell a good story, you’ll connect with an audience and make a difference. I want to change the world as much as anybody else. But I realize that people don't want a film that has a chip on its shoulder. They want a film that will engage with them.

Koran By Heart will premiere Aug. 1, 2011, on HBO.

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