Touba: Film Review

Touba Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi - H 2013

Touba Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi - H 2013

Doc about massive pilgrimage offers some stunning images.

The director of "Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love" follows a religious pilgrimage in Senegal.

NEW YORK — A travelogue whose guide prefers to serve as a conduit for observation rather than as interpreter, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's Touba offers scenes from an annual pilgrimage of Sufi Muslims in Senegal. Though its audience is limited to viewers already interested in the religious traditions of Western Africa and those willing to sit back and soak up the journey's sensory details, the doc will find admirers in special bookings and understandably won a cinematography award at this year's South By Southwest.

Touba is a city founded by Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a non-violent religious leader exiled by French colonialists in 1895. Bamba's Mouride Brotherhood is based there, drawing a million believers every year for three days of thanksgiving and spiritual renewal. Vasarhelyi spends some time listening to the history of caliphs descended from Bamba and meeting contemporary leaders, who during this festival are visited by Senegal's president and assorted international dignitaries.

But the film is more interested in capturing the sights and sounds of this massive event -- from the traffic jam leading into the city (now Senegal's second-largest) to the array of faithful silently gathered for prayer on Day Three. We visit beautiful mosques, where time-lapse courtyard scenes show undulating lines of visitors, see haggling in the street over sacrificial animals (and get a close-up view of the slaughter), and hear chants both organized and spontaneous. On a couple of occasions, the crush of people threatens to turn violent, but leaders keep tensions in check.

In solemn voiceover, narrators read excerpts from Bamba's writings, which extol the virtues of work and affirm the right of Muslims to observe their faith without European interference. More than a century later, his words clearly inspire millions.

Production Company: Little Monster

Director-Producer: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Executive producers: Scott Duncan, Diana Duncan, Miklos A. Vasarhelyi

Director of photography: Scott Duncan

Music: Jean-Philippe Rykiel

Editor: Eric Hendricks

No rating, 82 minutes