Contemporary tropes of luxury and ancient rituals coexist throughout The Challenge, Yuri Ancarani’s documentary about the art of falconry. Here the organic and the frivolously material aren’t oppositions or rivals, but partners in a spectacle for men’s eyes only. The centuries-old practice of falconry involves very expensive birds (a falcon can sell for up to $24,000 in televised auctions) and is partaken by unspeakably wealthy Qatari sheikhs, who are prone to bringing their pet cheetahs for rides in their Lamborghinis, zipping across the desert in their gold-plated motorcycles, and filling their private jets with falcons strapped with mini cameras.
Ancarani crafts a mise-en-scène so exuberant that the film becomes, at times, an unapologetic exercise in stylistic abstraction akin to the sand-and-light formations of Nathaniel Dorsky’s seminal experimental film Alaya. The vastness of the dunes where these falconers congregate to play with one another through the mediation of birds is nothing short of a graphic tabula rasa—a pristine land to be conquered by the men’s moving vehicles and ludic aviary games. How could such small things—men, birds, gold iPhones—be such representatives of power when the landscape itself all but swallows them?
There is, of course, something undeniably homoerotic about all this: men playing like boys with their trucks, beautifully dwarfed by the aerial shots provided by the falcons themselves, and outsourcing phallic display to their animate and inanimate objects. Falconry as depicted in The Challenge is a rather ecstatic kinship-making affair where women’s bodies are erased from the world and men are safely ensconced by their power supplies, sharing meals and comparing the symbolic size of their artifacts. The film almost invites us to draw parallels with Western modes of male sociality and phallic exhibitionism, ones where instead of cheetahs and falcons-as-drones we may have pit bulls and actual drones, footballs and baseball bats.
And the fact that Ancarani never explains the official rules and protocols involved in falconry only helps us to recognize this time-honored tradition as an elaborate excuse for male assembly. Things get particularly homoerotic when night falls and we glimpse dozens of SUVs parked in the remoteness of the landscape with their lights on—an image straight out of a parking lot where men go to cruise for sex. Not having been given any of its history, we begin to understand why falconry, a ritualized encounter among men that dates dozens of centuries, has withstood the test of time.