The Challenge


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Challenge
"That aerial sequence is as thrilling as anything in Top Gun."

A cheetah sits in the passenger seat of a Lamborghini. The cat's head tracks something on the roadside, the overbalanced power of perhaps a dozen cylinders push a confection of yellow-painted carbon fibre and other exotic materials along a desert freeway with the same aspirational ease as those spotted legs upon the veldt.

This ludicrous display is a minor element in a sporting story that makes consumption conspicious like grafting the genes for jellyfish phosphorescence to tuberculosis. It's a calm and measured documentary where a driver misjudging the tricky balance of forces required to hare a sport utility vehicle along the banked wall of a sand dune and tumbling a couple of tonnes of (probably) Japanese engineering is an incidental detail. It's about falconry.

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There's an auction in the middle where a good bird goes for thousands of Riyals which even adjusting for fluctations in exchange rates still equates to thousands of pounds. There's an array of hooded birds of prey bobbing their heads to unseen targets as they are carried in a private jet. There are other modes of transport too; ice-cooled perspex-backed hill-climbers, fire-spitting off-roaders that would do the Immortan proud, gold-plated Harley Davidsons. It's an overwhelmingly male domain, your traditional pursuits of fast birds and exotic pets. There's no narration, no explanation, no hand-holding. The audience are unhooded and left to hunt, and it is all the more glorious for it.

Yuri Ancarani's film is worth seeing on the biggest screen that you can, with the best sound system you can. The sound and music work is astonishing, the score by Franceso Fantini and Lorenzo Senni grabs as immediately as the sight of a barn full of gyring, the at times arresting landscapes punctuated by the blat of engines or the whistle of wind or the bleep or electronics thanks to Marco Mencacci and his sound department. A dreamlike place where laagered off-roaders form satellite television enabled caravanseri, where the camels are for the tourists and the cameras are on the birds.

An extended sequence of a falcon hunting will be discomfiting to animal lovers, not least because it is from the lofted and jittery perspective of the falcon itself. That ceaseless aerial tracking is not here instinct rendered useless by the flight of man but the sudden sweeping eye of the predator. Drone cameras feature, but it's the ornithilogical gaze that makes The Challenge special. That aerial sequence is as thrilling as anything in Top Gun. Even on the canvas of the big screen it's impossible to spot the escaping quarry until the raptor is upon it.

In terms of its presentation it is in and of itself a challenge, but it earns it, proffers proportionate reward - so lush, so lunatic, it's the perfect Gibsonian ideal of the differently distributed future.

A camera on a falcon watches the cheetah, and though they're both maintained as pets at the top of a food chain, one's still a bird, one's still a cat. That's a formula that's worked since the golden age of animation, and this is perhaps similarly old-fashioned. It is a camera pointed at a topic of interest, but it is with an artist's eye and no small amount of verve.

It does, perhaps, have a couple of faults - the subtitling is generally good but it's only an earlier example of a common spelling mistake that means the phrase "driver don't loose the falcon" can be properly interpreted. It's also short, a mere 70 minutes, and though it's definitely satisfying there could be more, if only for that score. Its sonic strength is able counterpoint to unrestrained visual splendour. Dark, light, day, night, fire, sand, bird, flight - it may be difficult to find but it is absolutely worth hunting for.

Reviewed on: 26 Jun 2017
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The Challenge packshot
Documentary follows wealthy Qatari sheikhs who moonlight as amateur falconers, with no expenses spared along the way.

Director: Yuri Ancarani

Year: 2016

Runtime: 69 minutes

Country: Italy, France


NDNF 2017
EIFF 2017

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