The film’s implicit ideas about movement and cultural transference are interesting, but ultimately secondary to the flat spectacle on display.
There’s an almost inherently surreal quality attached to the assorted modern fiefdoms that make up the Emirates, a cluster of wealthy miniature kingdoms poised on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Formerly insignificant desert territory, these countries (comprising Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE) were launched into the economic stratosphere by the discovery of huge oil and gas reserves, securing them national independence and offering financial security to much of their tiny native populations. Contrasted with the struggles of a place like Yemen, located diagonally across the landmass (and ignoring the experience of the much-abused foreign workers imported to do much of the dirty work) the ample top tier of these societies sits cosseted in the lap of luxury, with some princes boasting entourages in the low hundreds of members. Pitched somewhere between fairy-tale opulence and sci-fi inequality The Challenge portrays this lifestyle in all its consumerist insanity, indulging completely in the wild pageantry of out-of-control largesse.
The Qatari upper-crust depicted here descend from Bedouin nomads, a people who, befitting the harsh landscape of the peninsula, tracked ceaselessly around the desert in search of adequate sustenance and shelter. After countless generations spent living lives of constant movement, their offspring have now been relegated to the posh, pampered uselessness of housecats, ensconced in the Edenic pleasures of endless, aimless leisure time. The desire for activity and movement is fulfilled, as it was with the royalty of old, via staged contests stressing virility and mastership. in this case, mostly vehicular Mad Max and biker gang cosplay, video games, and extreme falconry. Luxuriating in an unparalleled level of access to this strange bacchanalian carnival, The Challenge adopts a fly-on-the-wall approach that lets these men and their massive retinues preen, pose and perform, showing off their impossibly expense toy sets.
The festivities on display here brings to mind ideas of Deterritorialization and Reterritorialization, as laid out by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In these linked concepts, the pull of the global market erases the specific local character of a place, forcing it to recode itself in compliance with the commercial dictates of the larger world within which it is now enmeshed. Falconry, once a means for Bedouin and other nomadic peoples to hunt small game in barren, inhospitable settings, thus serves as an example of a practice whose initial cultural value has been glitzed completely into oblivion. Now playthings for the ultra-rich, the sleek birds provide the film’s climax as they finally take to the skies for a hunting competition, a scene viewed from within and without, as both helmet-mounted GoPro footage and locally-televised sporting event. The splendid desert landscape, formerly the impetus for a peripatetic lifestyle, now presents only empty obstacles for macho games, something to be summarily vanquished again and again, with no consequence or actual risk involved.
Italian director Yuri Ancarani delights in pointing out the uncanny, unnatural edges of this bubble world, offering a Huysmans-style menagerie of shocking sights, from a cheetah in a Lamborghini to falcons on a private jet, their heads snapping eerily back and forth as the plane glides through the clouds. There are, however, lingering questions about the utility of all this footage; it’s easy to indulge in lavish, ridiculous hedonism, but more difficult to incorporate it into a thesis that doesn’t end up being subsumed within the intoxicating spell cast by such overwhelming extravagance. In this regard, The Challenge seems to offer little more than detailed confirmation that the escapades of the hyper-wealthy are overwrought, excessive and grotesque. The film’s implicit ideas about movement and cultural transference are interesting, but ultimately secondary to the flat spectacle on display. The results feel a tad empty at their core, drawing this doubtlessly stunning document into the relative orbit of the very subjects it hopes to critique.