Sunday, September 19, 2010

Review: Baby Arabia

  • Directed by Panu Aree, Kaweenipon Ketprasit and Kong Rithdee
  • Starring Supachai Luanwong, Jameelah Boonmalerd, Umar Noraheem, Suriyah Madtorhead
  • Premiered on September 1, 2010 at the 14th Thai Short Film & Video Festival
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 5/5

"We just try to get the emotion of it."

Those are the words of Jameelah Boonmalerd, singer of the band Baby Arabia, which has entertained Thai-Muslim audiences around Bangkok and central Thailand for more than three decades.

The band covers Arab and Malay numbers, even though none of the members speak either language.

But the emotion is there. What's clear in the new documentary on the band is that, for the band, faith and music are closely intertwined. The band members believe in God and believe that the music they play is good.

Directed by Panu Aree, Kaweenipon "Salim" Ketprasit and Kong Rithdee, Baby Arabia premiered on September 1 as part of the Digital Forum program of the 14th Thai Short Film & Video Festival. It played to a capacity crowd, with many prominent filmmakers turning out to support the film.

The movie is also playing at the upcoming Vancouver International Film Festival.

It's the third effort by the trio of Thai-Muslim filmmakers who have made it their mission to tell the stories of moderate Muslims – stories that don't usually get told because it's the extremists, both Islamic and anti-Muslim, whose voices tend to be the loudest.

They previously did the short documentary In Between in 2006, profiling moderate Muslims in Bangkok, and The Convert, a 2008 feature about a Buddhist woman's conversion to Islam for marriage.

All were well-made and engrossing documentaries that sought to simply tell the truth without an agenda.

But with the raw power of music, Baby Arabia will likely carry the filmmakers' message to a wider audience.

The documentary follows the familiar pattern of other rockumentaries, starting off with a performance, showing the band traveling to their gigs – including a wedding that's up a small canal – and then profiles the key members of the bands in their daily lives.

Baby Arabia started up in the 1980s when there was a boom in Malay and Arab music in Thailand, sparked by Thai Muslims bringing back LPs from Mecca.

Accordionist Supachai "Geh Baby" Luanwong founded the band, which started out playing percussion-based Arab traditional music.

Guitarist Umar Noraheem was next to join. He sings the Arab lyrics and is known for his ability to yodel. His electric guitar adds a jangling Santana-like texture to the music. When he isn't playing music, Umar runs a fishing pond in suburban Bangkok.

The band has two female lead singers, the husky voiced Jameelah and Suriyah Madtorhead, who coaches the band's young back-up singer/dancers.

Jameelah tutors the Koran in Bangkok, and in one poignant scene, she demonstrates how she recites the verses – powerful and songlike – a demonstration of unshakable faith.

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