Falconry, the hunting of wild game with trained birds of prey, is a fascinating subculture. Though its origins are ancient and the practice controversial (because of captive breeding and the import and export of birds), Qatari sheikhs have turned what was once a means of survival into a modern and, as one might imagine, opulently surreal spectacle. A new documentary, The Challenge, directed by Italian filmmaker Yuri Ancarani, takes viewers into this rarified world of sheiks and falcons in a strangely beautiful and sumptuous way, showing the effects of Western capitalism's cultural ideals on the Gulf region's people and Qatar's mesmerizing desert landscape.
Although falconry was an excuse to enter this isolated world of sheikhs, filmmaker Yuri Ancarani had another motive: to produce a film in the desert inspired by films like Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider. The film took shape in Los Angeles around the time of Ancarani's first American retrospective at the Hammer Museum. There, while on residency, Ancarani conceived of the film, taking trips through California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah to survey several deserts.
"I realized that the desert of today couldn't possibly be the American desert," Ancarani tells Creators. "To tell a contemporary story I had to go somewhere else… Qatar."
Far from being simply a film about falconry in the desert, Ancarani describes The Challenge as a film about "western weaknesses" like money, status, male power, and so on. The cinema screen thus becomes a large mirror into which audiences can see the impact of Western civilization.
In a way, it is a film about traditions that have been genetically modified by capitalism—in this case, falconry. So, he selected Qatar not just because of its desert topography, but because it's one of the global economy's leading countries.
"When I introduced myself as Italian, they kept repeating three names to me: Beretta, Prada, and Ferrari," says Ancarani. "It wasn't difficult to be loved by these people. I've tried to share my passion for what I do and I've tried to understand their passions. It has been intense and difficult, sharing their interests and to understand their millenary culture."
Ancarani adds that after spending a great deal of time in the Gulf, he sees many similarities between Italians, Americans, and Qataris—namely, expressions of the founding principle of the West: control, hierarchy, and power.
"Bear in mind that for a long while this has been one of the poorest deserts on the planet, and suddenly that little bit they had has become everything," Ancarani notes. "Falconry wasn't a form of showing off or vanity like it is today—it was a way to procure food for survival. It's a millenary tradition."
Those who watch The Challenge will quickly notice the striking beauty of the imagery, from the desert to the sheikh's fashion and the birds, and so on. Some of the imagery is surreal, like the television set on the desert floor showing the falcons up in the air; a cheetah sitting in a car with a sheikh; or another sheikh revving his truck's engine with the front door open, staring into Ancarani's camera.
The filmmaker felt compelled to represent the current era utilizing these strong visual symbols. It was also important for Ancarani to work in the Gulf during a moment of apparent openness and desire to approach the West and its customs and ideals.
"[It's] like hip-hop culture," Ancarani muses. "Or even, if you think about it, like Hollywood stars that in the 60s took pictures of themselves in their villas with ferocious animals."
Click here to see more work by Yuri Ancarani.