In his first feature-length work, Moroccan filmmaker Adnane Baraka presents a documentary that explores our shared fascination for the mysteries of the cosmos and the primal urgency to live.
Fragments from Heaven, which is screening at the Amman International Film Festival, begins with an astronomical event that took place in eastern Morocco a decade ago. The event is described by Mohamed Oubakha, a nomadic shepherd in his 50s – and one one the film's protagonists – as “blue fire” breaking over the Moroccan desert before colliding with Earth with a horrific rumble.
The blue fire, as it turns out, was a meteor believed to be from Mars, its fragments strewn across the flat desert.
The fragments, given their scientific value, are valuable. For Oubakha and many of the nomads in the eastern region of Morocco, they may be a life-changing find, especially necessary given the increasing aridity of the area – a possible byproduct of climate change – which has caused shrubs to dry, leaving less food for cattle.
As such, Oubakha decides to leave his family, joining a group of other nomads in an expedition to find the "precious stones". Their journey is a trying one. The group will spend weeks sauntering across the flat desert, surveying the ground in wandering gazes, barely blinking and “searching until I forget what I am searching for”.
Besides Oubakha, Fragments from Heaven also centres on Abderrahmane Ibhi, a scientist and university professor researching meteorites for clues about the origins of life. The stones are believed to contain organic compounds that suggest life may have emerged on Mars hundreds of millions of years ago.
“It was a radical choice and a risk,” Baraka says. “We have two characters, two different universes, and they never meet. What was a more interesting link was the quest itself.”
Baraka says the two figures – Ibhi and Oubakha – are looking for the same object, though for different reasons. While the former is driven by hopes of scientific advancement, Oubakha’s quest for the meteorite fragments is aimed at providing a better life for his family.
The same goes for many of the nomads striving to find the promising bits of stone. “One wants to get married or to build a house. Another wants to change his life and go to live in a village, not just in a tent in the middle of nowhere. They are simple dreams projected on to a stone.”
Baraka can’t quite pinpoint the film’s genesis, but says he’s been infatuated by the meteorite ever since hearing about it through Moroccan media. Meteorites frequently fall over the Moroccan desert, he says, but the one in 2013 particularly caught the attention of the public, as a single gram of the stone would sell for $1,000.
“People who found one or two kilos became rich,” he says. “That’s why it was famous, and more people became interested in finding them.”
Many came from across the world to Morocco with the aim of finding these stones, Baraka says, but the Amazigh who lived in those areas seemed to have an instinctive notion of where to look for them, perhaps because they were more familiar with the terrain.
It was the Amazigh nomads that Baraka wanted to feature in his film. The filmmaker describes his time with Oubakha and his family as “magical”, adding that they seemed undeterred by the presence of his camera. Baraka spent extended periods of time with them. He would take several trips from Marrakesh to the eastern region of Morocco, where he would spend weeks or even months at a time with the family and venturing out with Oubakha on his quest.
Fragments from Heaven was not a straightforward endeavour. The film has been more than eight years in the making, in large part due to the scarcity of initial funding. However, as Baraka made headway, and his vision for Fragments For Heaven solidified, he managed to secure funding from several established bodies, including Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and the Red Sea Fund.
“It was a strange and experimental process,” he says. “It began with the writing. I wrote sequences, imagined sequences, because documentary-making is not merely a slave of reality, but also provoking reality to happen.”
One example of this provocation is how Baraka wanted to present death – because he found it to be a necessary juxtaposition with the film’s allusions to primordial life. It was one of the earliest themes that Baraka had written for the documentary, and yet it wasn’t until the tail-end of the filming project that Baraka found a way to visually encapsulate death.
He would not have been able to find it had he not expressed his vision with Oubakha and his son. “During the shoot, I was focusing on something else with Oubakha, and suddenly his son comes up to me and tells me one of their sheep died yesterday.”
The sheep had trailed away from the herd, and after becoming lost, had died and was eaten by wild dogs. The cadaver is seen in the film as nothing more than a pile of wool and bones. The scene is a potent reminder of how absolutely the elements and cycle of life reign in the desert expanse.
There is a little dialogue in Fragments from Heaven, but despite the prolonged moments of silence – or maybe because of it – the film becomes a riveting watch that reels viewers with its tableaux-esque visual compositions and the sounds of the desert – the wind buffeting against Baraka’s microphone and the crackle of sand and stone.
Between the sprawling scenes of Morocco’s desert and the close-up portraits of Oubakha, his family, and the nomads searching for meteorites with a trance-like persistence, Fragments From Heaven manages to become, much like the subjects and themes it examines, timeless.