A pilgrimage is an immensely beautiful act. A long journey, on foot through the wilderness, in pursuit of faith is a compelling thing to watch even if you yourself don’t understand that kind of devotion. One could make a film about a pilgrimage that would retain its physical, aesthetic impact even if you lent it no context at all. Werner Herzog’s Pilgrimage and the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab’s new Manakamana come to mind. Both are gorgeous examples of the representation of life, humanity, etc. But what if there’s more to say? Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s new film, Touba, is a portrait of a pilgrimage with more of a mission of its own.
The idea is, in a sense, the recasting of Islam and the way that it is understood internationally. There is much more going on in the film, of course, but one of its very clear goals is to illustrate an element of the religion that is often left out, specifically in Western media. The pilgrimage in question is the Magal, the annual gathering of Senegal’s Mouride community in the holy city of Touba. The celebration lasts three days, centered upon the 1963 great mosque built in honor of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, founder of both Mouridism and the city itself. Vasarhelyi combines stunning overhead images of the gathering pilgrims with an introduction to this singular Sufi order. The result is a film that is simultaneously visceral and informative, not exactly an easy feat.
It doesn’t work instantly, either. In the early sections of the film Vasarhelyi struggles a bit with assembling an introduction to the ideas of Cheikh Bamba, the size and character of the Mouride community and the experience of watching the Magal. There’s a lot of introductory information conveyed with intertitles, much of which is necessary but feels a bit front-loaded. Moreover, it’s hard to tell exactly how much detail is required for the audience to get a sense of the Magal without becoming too distracted from the emotional, experiential goal of understanding through visual immersion. A diversion into the hard-labor focused sect, the Baye Fall, is an intriguing aside that enriches the film’s relationship with faith. The introduction of many leaders of the Mourides, on the other hand, might allude to distracting complications.
The principal figure is the Caliph, Bamba’s grandson. Yet there are a number of other Cheikhs, who appear to wield a great deal of political power alongside their spiritual leadership. It is in no way Vasarhelyi’s responsibility to tell the full story of the role of the Mourides in the government and society of Senegal, though that would undoubtedly be a fascinating film on its own. However, images of Cheikh Bethio distributing free food in baskets with his name emblazoned on them evokes both the spirit of the event and the specter of a political machine. There’s an awful lot going on in the three days of the Magal, and some of it inevitably tries to burst out of the otherwise tightly made film.
That said, the overwhelming impression created by Touba is one of striking color and spiritual grandeur. The city of Touba feels ancient in its holiness despite its relative youth among sites of pilgrimage. The enormous lines of people celebrating and praying, dressed in bright flowing garments, have a more impressive charm than many of the somber rituals of American and European religion. Vasarhelyi’s choice to include the words of Cheikh Bamba himself, in a voiceover that feels almost like a whisper compared to the exuberance of the surrounding sounds and images, adds a layer of spirituality even to the experience of the audience. As a result it is a less bold, perhaps less visceral film than Pilgrimage or Manakamana, but it may very well be a richer one.