News Column

'The Prophet': Gibran Khalil Gibran refracted around the world

May 18, 2013


May 18--BEIRUT -- It is a commonplace of this broad land that it resides overseas as much as it does within the borders the French drew for it. Naturally, the expatriate condition is shared by Lebanon's artists.

The prototype for the expatriate Levantine artist was forged early last century in the crucible of New York City. There a cluster of writers experimented with English-language verse and individuals found a niche for themselves among deracinated urbanites, fond of finding the exotic elsewhere.

These artists made enough of a mark on the cultural landscape of America, and later Lebanon, that they earned a name: Al-Mahjar (the diaspora).

The best-known names in the group -- Mikhail Naimi and Amin Rihani -- linger in the memory even if their writings do not. The most successful Mahjar of all was Gibran Khalil Gibran, whose willingness to accommodate himself to his adoptive home was suggested in his decision to transliterate his name "Kahlil," as if to save American readers the hurtle of his name's baffling first letter.

Like William Blake, whose work evidently had some influence on him, Gibran crafted both words and images -- both immune to critical consideration now -- the best known of which is "The Prophet."

Labeled with various epithets, including "novel" and "long prose poem," "The Prophet" is premised on the eminent departure of a revered spiritual figure from a port city. Before he boards the ship, the eponymous narrator delivers a Sermon-on-the-Mount-style monologue in which various members of the community ask him to "speak of" things that relate to their day-to-day lives.

The weaver asks him to speak of "clothes," the merchant of "buying and selling," and so forth. And the prophet obliges.

As a post-colonialist critic might say, there is quite a lot to "unpack" in "The Prophet."

In the latter 20th century, those deracinated urbanites of the New World embraced Gibran's work as a spiritual manual, not unlike the way others of their temperament puzzled over translations of the centuries-old Sanskrit poem the "Bhagavad Gita."

For secularists, uninterested in prayerful intimations of immortality, "The Prophet" is doubly galling. First, the content of the verse presumes that, in assuming a prophetic persona, the writer has some insight into spiritual matters. Second, the biographical incidentals of its production and reception -- an "oriental" writer composing in English for an American audience -- invites skepticism about the measures of inspiration and opportunism at work.

Whether you grok Gibran's prose or not, "The Prophet" has recently become a hot film property.

In early 2012, the Doha Film Institute (the engine behind Qatar's yearly international film festival and various film development funds) announced that it was partnering with Salma Hayek to produce a feature-length, animated film adaption of "The Prophet." Now scheduled for a 2014 release, Roger Allers (of "The Lion King" fame) is among 11 "internationally celebrated directors" to helm the film.

A couple of months after DFI announced its project, spokesmen for a Lebanese outfit said they too intended to make a film adaptation of Gibran's slim volume. The state of this project is unknown at the moment.

In 2011 -- a couple of years into the profound economic and social dislocation caused by state responses to the global financial crisis -- peripatetic U.K. filmmaker Gary Tarn released his own film adaptation of "The Prophet."

Running a sensible 75 minutes in length, Tarn's film, which just commenced a theatrical run in Beirut, doesn't reproduce Gibran's work in its entirety. Rather it samples enough of the chapters, and does so generously enough, that habitues may be reminded of some favorite lines, and neophytes will get a sense of the work's "Fire Sermon"-like structure.

Tarn's film did provoke a couple of positive reviews after it had its North American premiere at Hot Docs, Toronto's massive festival of documentary cinema, in 2012.

This adaption does have its strengths. Tarn cast U.K. actor Thandie Newton to read from Gibran. She took the opportunity to practice a flattened-out North American accent when doing so. This is appropriate enough, not only because Gibran made a name for himself in the U.S. but because of the film's visual style.

In stylistic terms, Tarn's object, presumably, was to provide efficacious visual accompaniment for the readings. His subject matter ranges over a wide patch of earth, from Lebanon to Taiwan, New York to Italy, India to Ireland.

His chosen medium is 8mm and Super 16mm film, which has a remarkable capacity to bring both hand-held intimacy and indie film's formal grittiness to the image. This handsome, washed-out palette also suits Newton's monochrome reading voice.

Regrettably, someone decided it would be a good idea to frame the movie with computer-generated, "Tree of Life"-ish sequences of the cosmos -- accompanied by the sounds of heavy breathing.

Putting that aside, Tarn's choice of media makes for an engaging start, as a glimpse of two figures standing on a beach with a dog dissolves into a slack-focused vista of the sea that eventually resolves on the image of a distant ship.

These seaside shots elide seamlessly into another of an antique Mercedes climbing a mountain road, which local audiences might recognize as the one that empties into Bsharri, the mountain village where Gibran was born.

From a moving car, the camera pans over the collapsed shells of ruined buildings -- evocative of select regions of Lebanon in the wake of Israel's 2006 attacks. This camerawork is reminiscent of another doc that emerged in 2011, Eric Baudelaire's "The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images," which enjoyed a months-long run recently at the Beirut Art Center.

Early on, it's easy to imagine that, like Baudelaire, Tarn is a student of Adachi's theory of landscape. Indeed, as Newton's silky voice insinuates itself into the trenches of the brain, it seems Tarn may have found the ideal visual counterpoint to Gibran's words.

As things progress, however, and the text lapses into its episodic call-and-reply formula ("Speak of this." "OK, 'this' is ..."), it becomes apparent that Tarn's goal is one of illustration.

Certainly considerable craft, imagination and political sensitivity have informed these illustrations, each of which is composed with a slightly different aesthetic, depending on whether he's shooting in 8mm, 16mm or video, and what subject his lens has found.

These vary from obsessive shots of lovers caressing as they say goodbye at a train station to the images of urban pedestrians refracted through plate glass, from slabs of beef hanging in butchers' windows to upended shots of beachside figures whose images are reflected off the wet sand, from excerpts of Paul Frecker's "Post-Mortem Photographs" to jump cuts of department store TV displays, each framing Newton's mouth reading the Gibran passage you'd been happily ignoring up to now.

Gary Tarn's film is unlikely to convert skeptics to Gibran's work. For those who love the piece, or who are innocently unaffiliated when they stroll into the cinema, it may provide an audiovisual setting that reaffirms whatever relevance the prose may have for you.

Gary Tarn's "The Prophet" is screening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. For more information see


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