A young child sits in a modest seat in front of a computer and a room full of expectant people. He presses a button, and the computer tells him where to begin reciting from and where to stop.

What happens next is an incredible string of intonations and harmonious poetry that sail out with eyes closed. It’s a stunning feat of memorization, and a testament to the beauty of an ancient language and text.

This is the world’s oldest Koran memorization contest, and in Koran By Heart, director Greg Barker tells a sweetly compelling story about three of the youngest competitors.

There are few documentaries that get every element right, but this is certainly one of them. It takes the base of a competition film and uses the space to tell rich, vibrant stories about a group of talented young people who (in almost all cases) are shining examples in communities that struggle to support potential. More than that, it’s an introduction to another side of one of the world’s largest religions that seems to see Western headlines most whenever a bomb goes off in a public place. However, it’s not a defender of the faith by far, because any political or social commentary that emerges is straight from the people on screen and never from those behind the camera.

The three children in the spotlight here are all ten years old – an impressive feat considering that they’re competing against much older children. Nabiollah is from Tajikistan, and he’s trying to get into a private school in Dushanbe after the government shut his rural school down in an effort to crack down on religious extremists. Rifdha excels in all of her studies, but her father wants her both to be perfect and to be a housewife when she grows up. Djamil has traveled to Cairo for the event on his own, leaving family in Senegal behind.

All have memorized the 600-page Koran. None of them speak Arabic.

What’s at the center of this fantastic film is a coming-of-age story that takes place halfway across the world (at least from where I’m sitting). The success of it all rests on the ingenious way in which Barker and company have told those stories in both a familiar and a foreign way. These children could very well be headed to the National Spelling Bee, but their futures (both familial and societal) are contentious and not at all in their hands. The complex underpinnings of each story are never lost on the production, and neither are the opportunities for postcard-esque shots of Cairo, Maldives, Senegal or Tajikistan.

Somehow, a careful balance was struck, and nuanced moments win the day over the kind of ham-fisted politicking that might have infected the event at the hands of a different documentarian. Even though there are many different religious and societal viewpoints at work, none of them loses momentum or is given the short end of the stick – Barker lends even time to Rifdha’s encouraging mother and to her rigid, traditional father, for example. There’s a sense in this film of a world community which continues to disagree with itself, but all of those debates are silenced at the sound of a young child’s voice singing its most holy scripture.

That glorious recitation punctuates the movie with soul-cradling excerpts from the children in the competition. One child brings tears to the judges’ eyes, and it’s easy to see why. At the heart of the story is an incredible art.

After all, no matter the deep thinking that’s present in this compelling flick, the truth of it all is that the children are just so damned talented and adorable. It’s like watching Alvin and the Chipmunks lose themselves in the word of God. What they’re doing is amazing both for the hard work involved and for the beautiful, melismatic result.

The same stomach-sinking moments that exist whenever children compete in movies are present here, but there’s a touch of magic to the rest of it simply by engaging these extraordinary kids and their families. Plus, the look of the film is sleek and professional, propelled by interesting cinematography that’s been edited together with serious skill.

Political commentary, theological lesson, and coming-of-age story all calmly wrapped up together, Koran By Heart is a kind piece of filmmaking in a weary world.

Koran By Heart premieres tonight (8/1) on HBO at 9pm EST/PST.


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