The North American premiere of the documentary Mystic Mass by director Karim B. Haroun happened at RIDM. It is towards the end of the festival and it is films like this that keep the energy high. The Lebanese-Quebec co-production takes a close-up and thorough look at the last 24 hours of the ten day Achoura Ceremony that takes place each year in Nabatiyyeh, Lebanon. Many of us might have seen some photos or quick new stories about the festival because the images make an impression upon the viewer, Karim B. Haroun takes it a hundred steps further with his intense and meticulous film. He wants to give the viewer the chance to see things almost firsthand or at least have the feeling like they have.
In the year 680 A.D. an important event occurred in the history of the Shiite Muslim religion. It was the martyrdom after the assassination of Imam Hussein. Hussein, his brother Abbas, and their father Ali, known primarily as Haidar, are the most important saints in Shia Islam. Hussein is the grandson of the prophet Mohammad. Shiite Muslims believe that they have been selected by God to avenge Hussein’s death and that is the reason behind the ceremony.
Intense mass movements happen all around the world. Some are huge such as the one that happens in Iraq recently in which 25 million Muslims attended. The subject of this documentary is the ceremony is hosted by Nabatiyyeh and involves ten days and nights of processions, self-flagellation and self-mutilation. It is filled with rituals that have been done for centuries now and are pretty much all encompassing for the participants.
Special attention is paid to the processions and gatherings that involve the cutting of head and the subsequent continuous patting of it. Using swords or straight razors they make usually a couple of cuts on their heads. If you have ever cut your head you know heads bleed a lot. A couple of cuts mean a heck of a lot of blood. Men of all ages participate in this while either going shirtless or wearing white. Both of which provide a backdrop that highlight the amount of blood that is spilled. It is quite a visual. There is a police, army and ambulance presence around and they are occasionally needed, especially the ambulance people because some pass out due to a significant loss of blood.
After it is all over the men are reunited with their families and life goes on as it did before. A cleaning crew comes in to wash up all the blood and the men clean themselves up. The clean-up itself almost becomes another part of the ritual.
The film shows us that the particpants’ every energy and mental capacity is focused on Achoura. Using several angles for the same scenes it allows us to get up close, so close that at times I almost went to wipe blood away that I felt I might have gotten splashed with. He gets up close to the participants and the ceremony, but doesn’t impose himself or subject his biases on the film. There is no narration or interviews, Haroun just captures what is going on in its purest form. The event itself does all the talking.
The attention to detail by Haroun is at times astonishing. Nothing is allowed to slip through the cracks. Even brought to light is the interesting mélange of ancient and modern that took place. While the men, young and old, are performing rituals that have been done for hundreds of years they are also filming and taking pictures with their cell phones so they can post them on social media. An odd juxtaposition.