The Challenge is not what might be considered a “traditional” documentary.
There’s not much to be found in the way of plot, identifiable characters, or focus. Instead, it’s more of a meandering tour. The film is somewhat reminiscent of the work of the great Frederick Wiseman, whose career includes works such (but far from limited to) Boxing Gym, Law & Order (not the TV show), National Gallery, and (the controversial and once banned) Titicut Follies. Wiseman’s film, much like The Challenge, are meditative: they linger on their subjects with little (obvious to the viewer) editorial intervention, allowing the scenes and situations to speak for themselves. The Challenge follows in this tradition, albeit with a great deal more visual panache.
The simplest way to describe The Challenge is as a film about luxury. It follows a group of Qatari sheiks and their passion for falconry as they prepare for and compete in the Qatari Falconry and Hunting Festival. Nothing in the film looks cheap; money practically excretes from every crack and crevice. Lamborghinis, gold plated Harleys, cheetahs riding shotgun — the sheiks’ passions are fueled by an endless wealth, people who want for nothing, especially free time.
For all the money portrayed in the film, there’s very little civilization to be seen; the only glimpse we get is a twinkling skyline in the distance. Rather, The Challenge presents us with a never ending sandbox, an expanse full of nothing. There’s a sense that, much like children on the playground, the men in the film must invent new ways to keep themselves occupied. The falconry has less to do with the sport’s long tradition than it does boredom.
As far as looks go, the film is a visual treat. Long shots of endless desert, empty one minute, filled with luxury trucks and SUVs racing across imposing sand dunes the next, with an extended sequence from the point of view of a falcon hunting a pigeon as the climax. While it runs only a little over an hour, The Challenge feels a lot longer, although it never outstays its welcome. This is due to the languid pace established in the opening shot: an aviary brimming with falcons cawing as a couple of men make the rounds feeding them. This tempo is sustained throughout the film, the camera lingering on its subjects.
While I enjoyed it for what it was, I can very easily see some balking at the lack of overt structure and focus. Similarly, I can also see some becoming bored with the long takes of the surreally mundane goings on. Or, perhaps, that they came out of the experience with little more than with which they came in. These would be valid feelings attached to valid criticisms; however, The Challenge is not a film seems to have ever sought to answer for these shortcomings, if they can even be counted as such (that will depend on personal taste and tolerance).
It might be useful to look at The Challenge as less of a film and more of a concept piece. Each scene is like a carefully composed painting, each frame telling its own story. When the film reaches its conclusion and we have viewed and considered all the paintings, we may not come out the other side enlightened, but we do come out with a greater sense of understanding. Understand of what, exactly? Like the film’s structure, the feelings it elicits are somewhat nebulous, the themes unclear and muddled. But there was something there, a certain clarity of the idiosyncrasies of human desire. In the vast, seemingly barren and empty land depicted by the film, populated by sheiks wanting for nothing material who seek the exclusive company of each other, what is there to do to pass the years away? When there’s no obvious dream to dig for, no aspiration left to reach, how does one fill one’s life with meaning?
For the men we spend just over an hour with in the film, the answer seems to be luxury: their mark on the world is a wake of expense that benefits only themselves, dreams of bought glory and prestige. But, then again, what makes this any less or more worthy a pursuit than one who scrapes together coins to buy a canvas and paint, or one who studies physics to understand the stars? It’s all in the name of assigning some sort of identity to the brief stack of years that denote our lives.
We screened the film at New Directors / New Films Festival.