Magazine article Metro Magazine

FLIGHT OF FANCY: Falconry, Affluence and Yuri Ancarani's the Challenge

Magazine article Metro Magazine

FLIGHT OF FANCY: Falconry, Affluence and Yuri Ancarani's the Challenge

Article excerpt

A STRIKING FILM ABOUT A RARELY FILMED COUNTRY, THE CHALLENGE USES COMPETITIVE FALCONRY TO PROFFER A PICTURE OF LIFE AMONG QATAR'S UPPER CRUST THROUGH MASTERFUL SHOTS OF BIRDS IN FLIGHT AND STILLED IMAGES OF MEN MADE MINUSCULE IN THE VAST DESERT, YURI ANCARI HAS DOCUMENTED THE COLLISION OF PAST TRADITION AND PRESENT-DAY PRIVILEGE IN THE GULF.

At the beginning of The Challenge (2016), Yuri Ancarani's film about a falconry tournament in the Qatari desert, we hard-cut from the opening credits to a striking, puzzling image. There, in an otherwise-barren stretch of sand, stands a towering black rectangle, looming in the middle of the frame, in the middle of the desert. It's a visual evocation of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) that immediately puts the viewers on the back foot. What is this shape? Is it real or a visual effect? What is its purpose, narratively speaking? And what's it doing in what's supposed to be a documentary?

'I could even tell you that the whole film is staged, and that the people you see are actors,' Ancarani has said, playfully.1 The men we see on screen, ridiculously wealthy Arab sheikhs with lives of unimaginable luxury and leisure, could be actors; behind their ghutras and white robes, at least, they're all interchangeable. The grand vistas of the desert make for such a beautiful background that they could've been employed just for visual resonance. And this monolith could be a work of CGI, inserted into the empty expanse to make the alien landscape seem even more alien.

But it's all real. This towering obelisk, though unexplained in the film, is the work of sculptor Richard Serra; it's one of a quartet of steel plates standing in the sands of the Brouq Nature Reserve in western Qatar, each mysterious object over 14 metres tall, as part of a work called --notably, here--East-West/West-East. (2) The eerie vistas may look like footage brought back from the surface of some barren planet, but the flat-topped, caramel-coloured limestone outcrops, the lifeless sands and the rustling breezes are of this world; if you look carefully, you can make out telephone poles.

And the characters herein--the guy who drives a Lamborghini with a pet cheetah in the passenger seat, the motorcycle-gang leader who rides a 22-karat-gold Harley-Davidson, the falconer who flies his competing birds in a private jet, the motorhead whose souped-up four-wheel drive has a muffler that fires sparks into the sand like wounding gunshots--aren't fictional creations, but rather, somehow, real people. Even the birds, the most undeniably authentic elements of The Challenge, could've been wrangled to tell a director's story. The collective noun for falcons? A cast.

The Challenge is Ancarani's first feature film--even if, at sixty-seven minutes long, it only just qualifies. Born in 1972 in Ravenna, the Italian is a video artist whose previous short works have been exhibited in museums and galleries, and are all of a similar spirit: static compositions displaying vivid images, often of the alien landscapes of Earth. His first, II Capo (co-directed with Pietro Savorelli, 2010), is set in the marble quarries of the Apuan Alps in north-west Italy, its titular character standing atop the quarry - shirtless, skin leathery, face all cracked lines, crucifix nestled among thatch of chest hair--guiding the excavators with hand signals like a maestro conducting a symphony. Piattaforma Luna (2011) dwells with a crew of deep-sea divers in a pod on the ocean floor, appearing, for all the (out of this) world, as if on a space shuttle. Da Vinci (2012) takes us to an unexpected alien landscape: the human body, chronicling the ultra-high-tech, robotic gadgets employed in surgeries. San Siro (2014) is a portrait of Milan's iconic football stadium, in which the towering structure is seen with an outsider's gaze - a work of grand-scale architecture unmoored from sporting narrative. And Seance (2014) is literally titled, Ancarani's stilled camera communing with a medium, the film billed in its trailer as a 'conversation with Carlo Mollino, architect'--someone who died in 1973. …

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