“Koran by Heart” simultaneously embraces and subverts a familiar documentary genre. As several critics noted when it played last spring at the Tribeca Film Festival, it follows the formula of cute, precocious kids under win-or-lose pressure that was popularized by the 2002 film “Spellbound” and “Mad Hot Ballroom” in 2005.
Unlike a spelling bee or a dance tournament, though, the International Holy Koran Competition, held annually in Cairo, has consequences beyond triumph or tears. In Mr. Barker’s supple, subtle hands, the contest provides a means of exploring the tension within Islam between the kind of fundamentalism typified by rote, literalist instruction and the modernity outside the madrasa’s door.
“I was interested in Islam as a force in the world,” Mr. Barker, 48, said in a Skype interview from his home in the Los Angeles area. “The struggles, the conversation about modernity within the faith. It’s not what most people are aware of. I was looking for a way to put a human face on the religion and on the struggle. And as a filmmaker, I was looking for a way in.”