Films on sound: Muezzin

contestant in muezzin competition
By Frances Morgan

Perhaps it's not quite accurate to call Muezzin a film 'about' sound. Sebastian Brameshaber's documentary about the muezzin callers of Istanbul, currently showing at the London Turkish Film Festival, is primarily a film about faith, and how human ambition and artistic expression work with and against it.

However, Muezzin's starting point is a sound: the Muslim call to prayer that is part of the everyday sonic environment for many people in the world. The film tells the story of two muezzins from Istanbul – a city that, while the heart of secular Turkey, contains almost 3000 mosques – in parallel with a portrait of religious music specialist Habil Öndes, a respected muezzin teacher and judge of Turkey's annual call-to-prayer competition, which forms the climax of the film. Brameshaber's subjects are neatly chosen, from the devout Isa Aydin and musically-minded, passionate Halit Aslan to the omniscent Öndes and flamboyant former winner Mustafa Yaman, who has a touch of the X-Factor victor about him; and the director's aim seems to be to show the real lives behind these disembodied, echoing voices that ring across the city.

Habil Öndes

 

However, it's the voices, and, less obviously, the sounds around them, that add real depth to Muezzin. Recorded by Brameshaber and Marco Zinz, the sound design is simple and striking throughout, especially in an opening scene set in the early hours of the morning, in which Halit Aslan prepares for the first call of the day in Istanbul's historic Fatih mosque. The small sounds of everyday ritual – a creaking door, lights snapping on, reverberating footfalls on old stairs – are closely observed in the build-up to the muezzin's call. The vocal performances are wildly different, and often virtuosic and very personal (the contestant from Konya, who causes the other entrants some concern, has a particularly striking style); this is set in contrast to the matter-of-fact musical and stylistic discussions by the judges before and after.  The technology that's now applied to this ancient sound is not hidden from the viewer – we hear mic checks, discussions about the direction of mosque loudspeakers, and phone-recorded practices.

 

 

In an interview on the London Turkish Film Festival blog, Sebastian Brameshaber talks about the making of the film, the use of sound in it and whether or not he's made a 'music film': although it wasn't the intention, he acknowledges that the conventions of music documentary-making help drive the film's story. Throughout Muezzin interesting questions arise about the relationship between artistic expression and expression of faith, and it's the centrality of sound in the film that brings those questions to the fore. I enjoyed it very much as a portrait of how sound forms part of everyday rituals, and have been looking out for other examples from other countries and religions, such as this great bell-ringing scene from Herzog's Bells From The Deep (1993).

 

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