Doc Review: “Koran by Heart”

Tonight Greg Barker’s “Koran by Heart” debuts on HBO. It’s a competition doc — this year there’s a bunch — but it’s so much more, and I highly recommend it. Here’s an excerpt from my review of the film at Spout:

The fact that it’s not necessarily a display of comprehension does correlate Koran recitation to spelling bees, making “Koran by Heart” more akin to “Spellbound” than most competitive docs likened to Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 exemplar. But the contest here is also a metaphor for contention among Muslims throughout the world regarding proper observance of the text and Islam in general. Many of the competitors, including the three that Barker focuses on, do not speak Arabic. So while they may have an understanding of the teachings of Islam, they don’t know what they’re literally chanting when they recite the text in the Arabic language. Equate this with followers of any religion who either don’t fully know or fully obey the doctrine of their faith. Or, to followers who believe and live one way that is perceived as ignorant or incorrect by other followers. The irony of the analogy, however, is that there is only one perfectly accepted way to recite the Koran.

The film premieres as part of HBO’s summer doc series at 9pm. It’ll also be on demand and on HBO GO through 9/11. See it.

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Review: “Worst in Show”

If a bar was set for competition-based documentaries last decade with the edge of your seat drama and opposition in “Spellbound” and “The King of Kong” (which I named as the best of their kind for the 2000s), two recent films have proven that suspenseful editing and formulaic narrative is not necessary for engaging non-fiction stories. Last week I reviewed “Kings of Pastry,” which isn’t really about a contest but rather an examination, and it’s comparatively slight and insignificant but it works. Now I’ve just seen the festival-touring “Worst in Show,” a doc about the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest that ignores intensity for basic human-interest magic.

Obviously it’s also a dog-interest story. The hour-long film takes us to Petaluma, California, for the 2010 competition of hideous canines (you’ve no doubt heard of Sam, the undefeated pooch who put the contest on the map). But it’s not Animal Planet fluff. And the real freak show is with the owners. I’m not necessarily saying some of them are ugly — though what they say about pets and their owners looking alike is validated here — so much as they’re just amazingly odd (but not mocked or exploited as such). Christopher Guest could not make up characters better than what you find here.

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Documentary Channel Presents Oscar Marathon This Weekend

Since Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar is pretty lacking in the documentary department, The Documentary Channel comes to our rescue this weekend. Or yours. Unfortunately, I don’t get the network (Cablevision be damned). I wish, even if it would mean I got nothing else done the next few days besides catching up on old docs. The channel’s marathon of Oscar-nominated shorts and features starts tomorrow at 4pm with the 2004 short “Hardwood” and continues through Monday, ending with the 1978 short “Gravity is My Enemy.”

Here’s the trailer/ad:

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