ZIKR: A Sufi Revival

Amidst intermittent snowfall, celebrity sightings, and popcorn consumption in Park City, there was at least one 2018 Sundance Film Festival experience that carved out peaceful, sacred ground.

The creators of ZIKR: A Sufi Revival asked participants to remove their shoes before entering the VR installation that was part of the New Frontier program. They explained this was a social and communal experience, and four of us (three strangers and I) stood in a circle and allowed the ZIKR team to affix headsets and headphones. We were handed controllers, but told this was not a game, and there were no buttons to press. Our controllers would be used as instruments – to clap, mimic playing instruments, and dance. We were invited to witness and to worship alongside a number of Tunisian Sufi Muslim troupes.

The 17-min experience dropped us into the middle of Sufi rituals – on rooftops, in houses, and in a polygonal in-between space where our “hands” were linked with our fellow participants via a string of digital beads that brought to mind the connections all humans share but are rarely conscious of. As producer Selim Bensedrine put it when I met him, “This allows you to meet the energies of the people around you.”

ZIKR was deeply moving, extraordinarily vulnerable, and something I’ll not soon forget.

I walked away with both an increased awareness of Sufi ideology – they are a branch of Islam whose communal values are better experienced than debated – and the desire to spread the word about ZIKR and the possible VR experiences that could follow it. ZIKR can develop empathy, share embodied spiritual rituals with non-believers of a particular religion, and make whole cultures feel less foreign to one another. The theological and philosophical implications of other possible projects seemed readily apparent.

ZIKR director Gabo Arora talked about the “delicate balance” of vulnerability in participants and subjects that made the project so impactful: “The Sufi rituals are something you have to be invited to. They are not meant for voyeurs; they’re met for participants.”

Igal Nassima, one of the lead engineers on ZIKR and founder of VR production company Superbright, said the social element of the VR was meant to “help people embody the experience, and feel a bit closer to one another.”

Arora, who originally got involved with ZIKR through a UN project in Tunisia, said a chance encounter led to a key breakthrough for the project. In the early hours of the morning at a raging party in New York, Arora met Bensedrine. He told him about the project, and Bensedrine said his mother was a Sufi troupe leader.

Bensedrine’s mother eventually allowed the ZIKR team to film her troupe in Tunisia. Arora explained it was very rare, almost impossible, to be allowed access to film Sufi women performing rituals. One of the most powerful scenes of the VR experience, however, is when a young girl sings and performs a Sufi ritual right in front of the viewer’s eyes.

“This was the first outlet of her life (to perform a Sufi ritual),” Arora said. “This girl, Waad, had been wanting to do this.”

One of Arora’s – and the rest of the creative team’s – main goals for making ZIKR was to increase understanding of the Sufi faith and to counter Islamaphobia. Arora says he hopes others who experience ZIKR will be open to a more nuanced perception of Islam.

“When I do these rituals, I feel lighter, I feel better, I feel my soul more at peace,” Arora said. “I feel open.”  

You may be able to experience ZIKR sometime soon, as the project was acquired at Sundance by Dogwoof, who plans “distribution with location based installations at high profile international cultural centers, cinemas and museums.”

For more information on the creative teams behind ZIKR, check out the work of Tomorrow Never Knows, Sensorium, and  Association de la Renaissance du Maalouf et du Chant Soufi de Sidi Bou Saïd, one of the Tunis troupes that volunteered their time and efforts to perform rituals for the project.