SXSW 2013 Review: ‘Touba’ Allows Us to Virtually Experience a Sacred Journey

By  · Published on March 17th, 2013

Phase One

SXSW is an interesting place to see Touba, which won a jury prize for cinematography at the film festival this week. I almost feel bad for thinking of the event in religious terms recently while spotlighting the Alamo Drafthouse as a place of worship many of us make a “pilgrimage” to at least once a year. Touba is in fact about the annual journey known as the Grand Magaal, which brings millions to the titular sacred city in Senegal for three days of thanksgiving.

These legitimate pilgrims are Mourides, followers of an order of Sufism begun in the late 19th century by Amadou Bamba, a leader of Gandhi-like significance for his peaceful resistance against French colonial rule. Bamba also founded Touba as a holy site following a vision experienced there, and it’s grown to become a prominent urban center in Africa and the second largest city in the nation. It’s especially packed during the Grand Magaal, of course, with devout outsiders paying respects at Bamba’s resting place, meeting with the current leader (caliph) to receive blessing and, of course, attending prayer at the Grand Mosque.

We join them as virtual tourists thanks to this documentary, which is directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love) and shot in lush (and now award-winning) 16mm by Scott Duncan. Beginning alongside the travelers riding in by car and train, we’re invited through Touba to observe the culture and the practices with only minimal exposition titles giving us some of the historical background and current framework of this lesser known Muslim sect. On top of the visceral, voyeuristic visual approach, we hear Senegal-born rapper MC Solaar reading poetic passages from Bamba’s writings.

There is a very little bit of interview material, too, with a short appearance from former President Abdoulaye Wade commenting on the political power of the Mouride Brotherhood. Immediately afterward is a scene with the late Sheikh Bara Mbacke, then caliph and Grand Maribout of the Brotherhood and grandson of Bamba. He wants to know why there are so many people in the room, particularly the filmmakers. When told who they are, Bara Mbacke says for them to “stick to the facts and not talk about what they didn’t see here.”

Of course, the filmmakers don’t talk about anything, which will make the film unappealing to many looking for more context and information and maybe even some narrative. But there’s really not a whole lot to not get. In line with Bara Mbacke’s comment, there’s nothing of what we don’t see here. We’re simply watching the tradition, the ritual and the life and what goes on during this time, a bull sacrifice, meal blessings, washing before prayer and some unexpected disorder in the crowd, which gives reason for the major presence of soldiers in town for the festivities.

We can watch Touba and think that nothing interesting happens or find it all very interesting, learning by seeing, increasing our awareness of others in the world. It’s a film about heritage and tradition that falls well within the heritage and tradition of documentary, calling to mind the very dawn of cinema as non-fictional representation of daily life, both foreign and domestic. Also following in line with classics like 1925’s Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life and others in the more-objective area of ethnographic film, as well as, obviously another doc on the subject, Blaise Senghor’s 1962 short film, Grand Magal a Touba.

I’ve seen Touba called “Orientalist” for its outsider perspective, but without being told too much about the Mourides we’re also not forced to have that or any other presumed viewpoint. Mourides who can not make the journey could likely get something out of the film themselves. For us, the better experience might be to actually go to Senegal, but in fact we would feel more like outsiders in person than the film allows for us, looking from within as it does rather than peering into, and anyway it’s not a trip that is common for non Mourides. Nor would we as actual tourists have the same sort of access Vasarhelyi and Duncan received.

Now, if only someone could make a film like this about SXSW so we can feel like we’re there and experience it virtually without having to physically encounter the drunk, unwashed masses pouring through the streets of Austin right now.

The Upside: Virtual cultural tourism; stunning cinematography

The Downside: There are a few moments where exposition would have been appreciated

On the Side: This is Vasarhelyi’s second documentary focused on Senegal, the first being Youssou Ndour. Her next, the Senegal election film Mr. President, makes it a trilogy.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.