Thirteen men (plus a psychiatrist-facilitator) embark on a 15-day trek in the Tunisian desert in North Africa to “find themselves” in helmer Francois Kohler’s understated docu. Comprising a mix of francophone ethnicities (Quebecois, Swiss, Belgian and French) and a limited range of ages and professions, the men undergo a series of exercises designed to liberate their inner man, while a virtual caravan of laden camels, drivers and cooks trails behind them. Laid-back pic, which opened at Gotham’s Film Forum for a two-week run, arrives 10 years too late at its New Age-y Iron John ethos to draw anything but flies.
Helmer Kohler maintains a friendly distance from his subjects, neither participating in the emotional hug fests nor ironically pulling back from the nude confessionals, making up in desultory epiphanies what he lacks in dramatic revelations.
Voice-over narration (in English), of the collective experience, introduces the “journey” without specifying who or what sponsors it. First person self-analyses recount childhood traumas as individuals run up dunes or roam around the campsite.
The men ritually burn objects or bits of paper to rid themselves of that which prevents them from moving forward, fight with foam-capped sticks to come to terms with their aggression or strip down to nothing to share how they feel about their bodies.
Kohler follows certain individuals fairly closely, the viewer tracing the separate psychological arcs of their respective problems. The camera encompasses all of the men’s activities from washing their hair to feeding the camels to endless discussions about their parents. The camera’s calm gaze works against the pretensions (and pretentiousness) of the supposed stripping away of masks concept to validate the quieter virtues of simply hanging out.
Far from encouraging “Survivor”-style competitiveness, the desert setting serves as a serene Club Med-type backdrop to the all-male bonding. The men, however, are careful to qualify their feelings as emphatically heterosexual.
Yet the prescribed focus of the exercises and the “how are you feeling now?” quality of facilitator Alexis Burger’s interventions narrowly circumscribe whatever “breakthroughs” the men may experience. The tribe’s unfailing politeness outside of activities specifically designed to arouse testosterone underlines the suspiciously benign nature of the entire endeavor.
Tech credits are fine, though Denis Jutzeler’s limpid photography does not always register crisply in DV. Sound quality is remarkably precise and distortion-free, even in the midst of a sandstorm.