A monkish man from the East wanders the world, occasionally encountering human life among empty landscapes – encounters that mark both him and the people he meets. Interspersing these events are flashbacks to iconic scenes of his youth, to the people and places which made him the man he is. But from both past and present, this questing figure always moves on, a nomad. For the journey of life is a solitary one.
No, this is not Kung Fu, the hit 70s television series starring David Carradine, but Rêves de Babel, a 2009 documentary directed by Don Kent and written by Christian Dumais-Lvowski about Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. In it, we see Cherkaoui (whose name, literally translated, means “man from the East”) with various collaborators in various settings around the world; but mostly we see him alone, sometimes addressing an unseen interviewer, sometimes wandering lonely as a cloud over the coast of Corsica, through the hills of Shaolin, the streets of Antwerp or Chennai.
In Kung Fu, whenever David Carradine was asked who he was, his answer, always, was “I am Cain” – three words which became a kind of zen shorthand to indicate the eternal mysteries of identity and existence. Rêves de Babel is a version of that: it begins with the words “I am Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui” and the rest of the documentary unpacks that little phrase, in sketchy chronology and with no unifying narrative – a collage of impressions rather than a rounded picture.
Born and raised in Antwerp of a Flemish mother and Moroccan father, young Cherkaoui was already a something of a composite creature, an outsider at school with a strange name whose family moved several times even within this small town. There are memories of the annual trip to Morocco, of his parents’ separation, of his first steps into performance as a backing dancer on a pop music television show. There are also glimpses of Cherkaoui working with some strikingly different collaborators – Shantala Shivalingappa, an Indian kuchipudi dancer, María Pagés, a flamenco dancer, Shaolin monks in China, the Corsican early music choir A Filetta – which illustrate some of the ideas he states in interview: that traditions should be open to each other, not cloistered; that exchange is productive; that dance, text and music may be different media but are part of a continuum of communication.
All that will make sense to those who know something of Cherkaoui and his works. For those who don’t, this film won’t help: it’s big on imagery and short on information. Cherkaoui’s route into contemporary dance, for example, and his journey as a choreographer, are simply missing. Fair enough, the format is not “life and works”, it’s “a portrait of the artist” – but this is a studiously artful picture that readily tips into filmic indulgences (the ending, in which Cherkaoui walks over sand and into the sea, looking miserable, particularly stuck in my craw). More than anything I missed a sense of “Babel”, of the many-voiced babble of his creations. Despite the contrasting settings and collaborators, despite Cherkaoui’s statements about exchange and shared languages, his predilection for polyphony, despite brief speeches from his mother, a Shaolin monk, and a singer – despite all this, Rêves de Babel feels like a monologue. Cherkaoui appears alone, or talks alone, about himself, and it’s hard to take this image of the “solitary artist” on trust if only because it is so self-consciously constructed, even mythologised, by the film itself. Rêves de Babel may have the verité look of documentary, but it’s as highly staged as any episode of Kung Fu.
What the film does do effectively is much less deliberate: the brief performance clips make you want to see, urgently, more of Cherkaoui’s choreography. Go, see them if you can. If you’re still interested, then this DVD is enlightening; on its own, it doesn’t show why Cherkaoui is worth making a film about.