The shorthand on “Koran by Heart” is “Spellbound in Arabic” — cute kids in competition, suspect parents, mounting suspense and audience wariness about children under pressure. Greg Barker’s docu provides all of the above, as well as a window into one of those cultural peculiarities — in this case, a worldwide Koran recitation contest — that may resonate beyond its obvious parameters. Docu’s exposure will likely be limited to HBO (it airs Aug. 1), but edu-tainment virtues are considerable.
Structurally, Barker’s movie is familiar. But where “Koran by Heart” parts dramatically from the likes of “Spellbound” (the spelling-bee movie of 2002), “Word Wars” (the Scrabble movie of 2004) or “Wordplay” (the crossword-puzzle movie of 2006) is in its connoisseurship: Western audiences can compete vicariously while watching these other films, but the rules known as tajweed, which govern the annual Koran-reciting contest that takes place in Cairo, are so elusive to the uninitiated that one can only guess (as most of us do while watching gymnastics or ice skating) at what the judges are looking for.
Yes, the pure musicality of a kid like Nabiollah Saidoff, who arrives from Tajikistan to wow the imams, is evident enough. But there are other parameters of pronunciation, accuracy and intonation that will escape many viewers, no doubt even those fluent in Arabic.
Still, the pic generates emotional heat by virtue of its youngest subjects, notably Nabiollah and the adorable Rifdha Rasheed, whose father comes off as a frighteningly obtuse fundamentalist, but who clearly has a mind of her own that is already reaching out beyond her homeland in the Maldives. The curious thing about Rasheed and Saidoff is that neither speaks Arabic; their memorization of the entire Koran is based purely on the sound of it in their heads. If this is somehow an advantage, helmer Barker (“Sergio”) never explores it.
One hundred ten competitors from 70 countries descend on Cairo for the competition, which is grueling, nerve-wracking and rich in surprises. The footage from outside the competition includes interviews with Koran expert Kristina Nelson, who isn’t particularly enlightening. More effective is the commentary of Salem Abdel-Galil, one of the organizers of the competition and an Egyptian moderate, who understands that the obsessive-compulsive aspect of something as epic as memorizing the Koran unavoidably touches on the troubling fundamentalist dimensions of modern Islam.
Comparisons between “Koran by Heart” and Abbas Kiarostami’s “Homework” (1989) are unavoidable, although Barker’s effort is quite literally child’s play compared with that docu. It’s a tale of innocents, but perhaps with a shadow cast over them.
Tech credits are tops.