Fact: I do not foresee my life changing to the point where I am driving a Lamborghini with a pet cheetah in the passenger seat. This isn't something I even had the imagination to dream up this particular fantasy. But for one of the subjects of The Challenge, this is his reality.
Yuri Ancarani's lyrical documentary is an observational portrait of the ultimate getaway weekend, a falconry tournament in Qatar. One of the things I appreciate about film is being able to experience other lives for a short timespan. This goes double for documentaries, which (depending on focus) can really put you in someone else's truth. And Ancarani's choice to remain a fly-on-the-wall— this documentary contains no talking heads, no voiceover, and no interviews— enforces the artifice of the camera simply by what and how he chooses us to observe this weekend.
It could be compared favorably with the fishing ship documentary Leviathan in its quest to witness the amount of wealth and traditions on display, though The Challenge remains far more accessible due to the linear nature of the weekend. It is not a narrative film in the way most will think of it so much as it captures many narratives and pieces of narratives. Each small segment of the film, from two men playing FIFA on XBoxes in the middle of nowhere, to presenting the various contenders, to a falcon's eye view of the hunt, serves as its own story, but together these perspectives and moments in time capture the breadth of this weekend.
In terms of privilege and culture, the wealth and traditions of the Arabian peninsula feel like a completely alien world to this middle class American. I've never been anywhere so empty as the vast desert where this tourney takes place, nor have I and a hundred other men all shown up to a remote location in our brand new Toyota trucks and Land Rovers. Nor have I ridden a camel after departing a private plane that I shared with a dozen birds of prey.
And this mix of the traditional and the new, of jumbotrons and smartphones side by side with a sport that has existed for millennia, is a central focus for Ancarani. This tournament feels as much about showing off wealth as it does connecting with the lifestyles of these ancestors, something which is reinforced in scene after scene.
All of these ideas would make this documentary worth viewing, but it would be impossible to overemphasize just how stunning this film looks. Partially because Ancarani often will hold a shot for longer than most, it gives the film a leisurely pace, but it also emphasizes the majesty of these birds as well as the craziness of this lifestyle. But the rest is just pure hardnosed filmmaking techniques. The blocking, the focus, all of those technical details that underline the craft at work are note-perfect throughout. Even when I wasn't sure what exactly was happening, the film's look was engaging and interesting. This is truly a documentary that is meant to be seen in a theater.
And luckily you can! It is playing Sunday, April 16 as part of the Cinedelphia Film Festival! Event details and tickets here.