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One Thousand and One Voices

Sufism, the mystical thread running through Islam, has a rich musical tradition that's explored in "One Thousand and One Voices," a captivating feature-length documentary from Tunisian helmer Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud ("Traversees," "Chich-Khan").

New Agers should easily connect with Sufi music; practitioners, accompanied by trances, chanting and dancing to the point of unconsciousness, aim to reach oneness with God. This graceful, erudite film is a welcome antidote to the frequent Western stereotype of Islam as a religion of fanatics. Beautifully lensed in five countries, with a modern layman’s approach to its subject, pic should make excellent programming for nonfiction channels and Arab film events.

Pic’s Arabic title “Wajd” means the emotion of amorous feeling — in this case, divine love aroused through singing and music. Islam, unlike Judaism or Christianity, doesn’t have specific musical liturgies, but Sufism contains its best musical expression, the filmmaker contends.

Ben Mahmoud, whose tall figure flashes through the film, explains that his father was a high-ranking member of a mystical brotherhood in Tunisia. It was organized around the cult of 13th century mystic Imam Chadhily, who taught reunification with God through spiritual exercises and chanting.

The free-wheeling hand-held camera shows boys and girls learning to chant the psalms in Koranic schools; later, segregated by sex as their voices change, they continue their studies at universities. Ben Mahmoud notes some theologians disapprove of the trance-like ecstasy that can result from listening to recitation, as chanters make rhythmic movements and bob their heads in time with the music.

Still more exotic is the filmmaker’s journey to India. The richness of color and movement during celebrations in honor of a saint is a visual feast. Muslim “dervishes” smoke hashish and listen to drum music to enter into trances in which they feel no physical pain from bodily mutilations.

Next stop is Istanbul, where the whirling dervishes in their long white skirts and tall hats perform trance-like dances in ancient mosques. In 1923, the new Turkish republic abolished the Sufi brotherhoods, which went underground to survive. Rumi’s poetry, now well known in the West, recounts their visions and flashes of eternity.

In modern Cairo, meanwhile, the Sufis hold exuberant street parties and chant under immense tents. Last stop is Senegal, where 2 million youths pile aboard free trains to attend the annual Mourides pilgrimage. The mixture of the sexes and spontaneous chanting by women shows that Muslim tradition has not forced all female voices into silence.

Structured as an autobiographical journey, the film communicates a great sense of freedom through cinematographer Afsheen Arya’s hand-held camera, which freely participates in mosque chants. Flawless English subtitles are a great aid to comprehension.

One Thousand and One Voices

France-Belgium

Production: An Artline Films/Les Prods. du Sablier co-production. (International sales: Ideale Audience Intl., Paris.) Produced by Olivier Mille, Hassan Daldoul. Directed, written by Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud.

Crew: Camera (color), Afsheen Arya; editor, Anne Christophe; sound (Dolby SR), Leith Nassiri. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (New Territories), Sept. 3, 2001. Running time: 90 MIN.

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