'Touba' reveals a different face of Islam by chronicling Sufi Muslims' annual pilgrimage to the Senegalese city of Touba. With unprecedented access and dynamic 16mm cinematography, this ... See full summary »
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'Touba' reveals a different face of Islam by chronicling Sufi Muslims' annual pilgrimage to the Senegalese city of Touba. With unprecedented access and dynamic 16mm cinematography, this poetic documentary takes us inside the Mouride Brotherhood--one of West Africa's most elusive organizations and one of the world's largest Sufi communities. Annually more than one million Mourides travel from all over the world to the holy city of Touba to pay homage to the life and teachings of Cheikh Amadou Bamba in the pilgrimage known as the 'Grand Magaal.' Bamba's non-violent resistance to the French colonial persecution of Muslims in the late 19th century inspired a national movement and doctrine, freedom of religious expression through pacifism, still practiced by millions of his followers. Written by Anonymous

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Beautiful, but accidentally Orientalist.
11 March 2013 | by (Austin, TX, United States) – See all my reviews

I was excited for the opportunity to attend the world premiere of Touba at the SXSW Film Festival. Touba is a really well-intentioned documentary. The filmmakers want to show us another side of Islam from the violent images normally broadcast in the media. They appear to have spent years filming this pilgrimage to the city of Touba in Senegal. The photography and cinematography are beautiful and the Western viewer gets a picture of a spiritual side of Sufi Islam that is usually absent in the West.

Unfortunately, they seemed to fall into some of the stereotypes that they were trying to address. They are undermined by their commitment to presenting a cinema verite style documentary. In so doing, they did what such documentaries often do, they leave out the complex cultural, social and religious context of the images that they are showing. While they made clear in the Q&A that they had spoken to experts and researched what they were filming they failed to deliver that element to the audience. The film would have benefited greatly if they had included the voices of academics and scholars explaining the rituals and practices that they were showing. Without context the images were often confusing and mysterious rather than informative. In a sense, they presented a National Geographic-style picture of a faraway exotic culture rather than really helping the audience relate to what they were seeing.

In addition, they seem to present numerous images of a mass of humanity caught up in a genuine spiritual experience, but in so doing they don't really give the viewer much of an opportunity to learn about individuals. The film could have benefited greatly if they had chosen a few of the pilgrims and followed them over the course of the events so that the audience could get to know them and their stories as individuals. They seem to have presented the pilgrims as a mass of undifferentiated humanity and thus promoted many of the stereotypes of Africans and Muslims that I can only assume they wanted to deconstruct. Watching it as an academic, I really felt that they had accidentally become Orientalists even though that wasn't their intent.

There was much that was beautiful in this film, but their good intentions are undermined by their inability to understand how the images that they are presenting are likely to be viewed by their audience. Context is everything.


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