SXSW 2017: The Challenge
The Challenge has some of the most astonishing imagery ever captured in a documentary film; capturing surreal moments that take place around a falconry competition in the deserts of Qatar, the film makes grand the seemingly quieter, yet odd, moments leading up to the event. There are several parties driving through the desert to reach the remote location, from a biker gang to falconers, who handle their prized birds while in Lamborghinis and private jets. The film isn’t as concerned with the competition itself, it’s all about the journey. Much of the film’s running time is filled with travel — the long tracking shots of gold-plated, spinning motorcycle wheels will either fascinate or bore you.
When the film moves away from the desert, we’re treated to the falconers lounging around; one falconer, at one point, has his hooded falcon resting on one hand, while his pet cheetah sits beside him. Oddity is the norm for this group. Director Yuri Ancarani films every frame with a heightened, cinematic point of view, all of which adds to the surreal tone. The film is framed in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which you’d normally see on feature films, and here it fully takes advantage of the expanded scope. A scene in which two men are watching cars drive through the desert is made breathtaking when a car flips over though a sand dune in front of them. With a running time of 67 minutes, Ancarani seemingly has placed the camera at the most opportune places, with most of it feeling staged. But, knowing he spent three years following the activities of these falconers as they traverse the desert for their eccentric hobby, you know you’re looking at the most magical moments amongst the captured footage.
The documentary makes references, both direct and indirect, from Stanley Kubrick — the opening shot after the credits reveals a mysterious 2001-esque monolith in the middle of the desert — to Terrence Malick. The narrative-less, imagery-heavy approach feels very much influenced by Malick, with the camera focused on the beauty of nature intersecting with the manmade festivities surrounding the falconry competition. The documentary has no voiceover or descriptive text detailing what exactly is happening. How often does this occur? Where exactly are we? Why falconry? There are no real answers — the film presents the events and allows you to be in awe of the spectacle, for better and worse. Frustration does set in as the film floats along. If you’re in need of the narrative structure you’d find in nearly any other documentary, then this movie is not for you. But, The Challenge provides enough eye candy to make the experience worthwhile, though. One of the highest highs the film reaches is when we travel with a GoPro attached to one of the flying falcons — it’s a majestic moment that exemplifies what cinema can do, it’s just odd that we’re see it in an aimless documentary about falconers.