Were you familiar with the International Holy Koran Competition beforehand? What drew you to this subject?
In the course of my work, I've spent a lot of time in Muslim countries. I'm fascinated by this internal debate within Islam, whether to embrace modernity or to take a more fundamentalist approach. Talking about that idea with Sheila Nevins and Nancy Abraham, we came up with the idea of shooting a Koran recitation competition as an interesting entry point into a complex subject. It works on its own, as a competition film with these amazing kids who the audience falls in love with. But as we get deeper into their stories, we see their families grappling with these very real issues that Muslims and non-Muslims are dealing with all around the world. How should Muslim children be educated?
What led you to these kids?
With a film like this you cast a wide net and talk to a lot of different competitors. For me, the three children who became the main focus had the most compelling stories, and they were so endearing as individuals. They also had uniquely interesting journeys within the competition.
Did their performances in the competition surprise you?
The first time we heard Nabiollah recite at the competition, everyone was completely transfixed. Even to non-Muslim ears, his performance was so emotional, so spiritual and otherworldly, and coming from a 10-year-old boy, really engrossing. It's like seeing an elite athlete at the height of their abilities. That was the moment I knew we really had a film. I wanted to know more. Does he know what he's saying? How did he come from the middle of Tajikistan to this tournament in Cairo? What's going to become of him?
How are the competitors selected?
There's a kid from each country. It's like the Olympics of Koran reciting; each kid feel's they're representing their country. It's a window into the best and brightest of this next generation of Muslim children, who are coming of age during a period of great transformation for the faith, which will have an effect on the rest of the world.