`Road To Mecca' by Harman Hussin

Religion is a funny thing. You may find this familiar. You friend brings you to a church and tries to match make you with... God. You just can't seem to make sense of the proposed relationship. You were skeptical and secretly peeved by the zealous congregation all around you. A few years later, perhaps when you have experienced a little more of life, someone else gives you another chance to `discover' yourself at a church. Suddenly, the songs resonate in harmony with your thoughts. Whether or not you accept the belief is another matter. But a relationship with a film can sometimes be a romantic detour like this.

I watched Road to Mecca in 2 parts. In the second viewing, there were some overlaps because I rewinded to allow myself to refresh my memory. I think I must have been under the influence of the `serious' films to have developed a prejudice against this `travelogue' of a film. I mean all my tainted eyes saw was Harman Hussin doing a `Lonely Planet'. Even the travel bug in me did not save me. I seemed to miss the point.

2 weeks later, I watched it again and discovered the Buddha within the debris (excuse the inter-mix of religious metaphors). A random stroll it still was. It even suffered the unceremonious roadblocks and visa rejections which jolted the pace of the documentary. There were also several narratively inarticulate moments that interrupted my mental journey as I followed Hassan. However, these could easily be remedied in the editing room. The beauty of `Road' was that every stop had a moment. The moments were heartfelt and even occasionally transcendental. And when you string them altogether as a collective memory of a pilgrimage, they add up to a something of a `Testament-al' nature.

I remember the Malaysian celebrity who exalted the benefits of wearing a hijab as opposed to modern women's wear and how it reminded me of how some people in Singapore would support the chewing gum ban. I empathised with the driver who confessed to breaking fast when nobody was looking. I still marvel at the grand montage of worshippers in a mosque in India that resembled a Hollywood movie set. My shoulders were quivering with giggles from the `proper' Muslim who sang praises of Indian Kashmir and remained oblivious to `Pakistani' Kashmir. Finally, a lady in Lahore named `Priti' stole my heart while she alternated between giggling at Harman and beholding the breathtaking view from the top of the tower in soulful contentment.

I did not always emerge wiser from the episodes for some were evidently just moments of relief (comic or cultural) that gave the `Road to Mecca' its `texture'. For sure, Harman's journey was not the most ideal and serendipitous he could wish for. There were obstacles aplenty. But I honestly felt it was how he encapsulated those moments, some even ordinary, that made me see so much beauty in so much squalor.

Panorama Crosstalk #10

(Jeremy) : I will always remember the scene at the top of this tower (was it Lahore?) where Harman, the director met a girl with a head shawl and asked what her name is. (pause) `Pretty' , she replied. (am sure it was really more accurately spelt as `Priti’ or somehing like that haha).
(Stefan) : The next time anyone asks what my name is, I will reply "Hunk".
J : Haha (and gulps).
S : But I think her name should be "Priety".
J : Why? Are you half Punjabi?
S : Because there is a Bollywood actress with that name. So it's a bona fide name. Not that she was trying to be funny haha.
J : Wow, your knowledge of films is really amazing. No wonder you are Singapore's No.1 movie reviewer.
S : Wait. Let me dig out her name.
J : (Silence)
S : Preity Zinta. I only know her because she starred in a famous Bollywood movie which I have yet to finish watching - Dil Se. Opposite Shah Rukh Khan.
J : Priety Zinta. Pretty Zinta. (pause) Anyway, I thought interesting characters were one of the things that defined Road to Mecca the documentary? (pause) Did you actually like it?
S : Yup. Even though it was raw, I thought it had a lot of moments captured on film that you don't usually see, therein lies the value.
J : In fact, I would compare it with another Middle-eastern-heavy documentary - `Veil of Dreams’. `Veil’ was a sleek but close-ended documentary. I have a new term for it – subtly boring.
S : `Veil’ was like a live action update of `Persepolis’.
J : Back to `Mecca’, what kind of moments are you referring to?
S : The very candid reply on fasting caught on film! I really didn't expect that!
J : Oh yeah, I remember the Malaysian celebrity who changed my mind about wearing hijabs. S : It gave a very sincere feel to the documentary. It was clear that the director was not trying to hide any unpleasantries about the practitioners toward their religion. Some filmmakers might choose to omit those scenes. (beat) But Harman didn't, and it worked.
J : Delightfully and surprisingly.
S : Harman tells you that as humans, we easily fall prey to temptation and the easy way out. I mean, since no one's looking, you might take a meal break during the fasting period.
J : Share with you something. I watched `Road to Mecca’ in 2 parts actually.
S : How come?
J : Cannot reveal, haha. (pause) But watching the second half after a few days break made me see so much more in the film. It was uncanny.
S : Mmmm.
J : Like suddenly, you took interest in a Renaissance painting and wanted to know everything about it.
S : Yes, I can understand that kind of feeling.
J : And get this, the second time I watched it was after the SIFF. (beat) So, I think the SIFF spirit was just not conducive for enjoying the film. Maybe I was in the mood for story and narratives. (pause) Really pre-judged it with a framework in mind.
S : Oh I see. (beat) Anyway, on the downside, I thought it was too short. It could have gone on for a little longer.
J : Was it because of the ending?
S : Not exactly. (pause) But as it went on, I was in the mood to see more and more
J : Same here, my wanderlust took over me by the time he was in Lahore.
S : (sigh) Then the rug had to be pulled... Ok, I better shut up now. J : Where was your favourite stop by the way?
S : Cannot recall exactly but it was in India when he broke fast with the mall employees. It was riotously funny that everyone just hammed for the camera.
J : That's very sweet too! (long pause) Mine was Lahore. (beat) Guess why?
S : The border guards?
J : No. How can it be?
S : Dunno.
J : It was kind of er..... pretty.

Hassan's `Road to Mecca' footprints can be found in:
Blog : http://road2mecca.blogspot.com/
Actual website : http://road2mecca.kino-i.com/index.html
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