Director: Jamil Dehlavi
Screenplay: Jamil Dehlavi, Rafiq Abdullah
Starring: Peter Firth, Suzan Crowley, Stefan Kalipha, Nabil Shaban
Duration: 84 min
BBFC Certification: 15
Produced by Film Four and made in 1983, but not released until four years later, Born of Fire is the second film by visionary French/Pakistani writer and director Jamil Dehlavi. He had made a big impression on the film festival circuit with the short film Towers of Silence and his controversial debut feature, The Blood of Hussain before starting work on this.
Born of Fire begins with nightmarish visions of skulls, solar eclipses and the Earth on fire which are being experienced by both flautist Paul Bergson (Spooks’ Peter Firth) and an unnamed astronomer (played by Suzan Crowley, best known for The Devil Inside). She visits him at a recital he is giving and explains to him that she thinks the visions are linked to extraordinary volcanic activity in Turkey, which she believes is being caused by the Sun and will lead to the destruction of Earth.
Soon, Paul is called to the deathbed of his mother, where with her dying breath she whispers the name of the Master Musician, a man Paul’s father (also a flautist) went in search of to learn advanced techniques but returned to never play the flute again. Paul decides to travel to Turkey to find the Master Musician and whilst there is visited by a mysterious shrouded woman who leaves smouldering footprints. His guide, Bilal (Stefan Kalipha), takes him to stay in the ruins of a Christian temple which he shares with a deformed mute called The Silent One (Nabil Shaban), and explains to Paul that the woman he met was in fact a Djinn, a malevolent supernatural spirit.
In the meantime, the astrologer convinces her employer to fund a trip to Turkey to investigate the volcanic activity. Before long she encounters Paul and they both begin to experience more visions leading them to hunt for the Master Musician, so Paul can engage him in a musical duel and find the never-ending note that will make the Master Musician bow to the will of Allah and stop the Earth being consumed by fire.
Born of Fire has attained mythical status amongst British horror fans of a certain age. It received a limited theatrical and VHS release in the 80s and then disappeared for almost thirty years. When I learned of its release on Blu-ray, I was very excited to see it and I was not disappointed. However, it is not the film I anticipated. Although it has some horror elements and imagery, I wouldn’t strictly call it a horror film. To me it has more of the feel of a dark fairy tale. After doing a little research, I learnt that Dehlavi had drawn on the Islamic notion of Iblis or Shaytan (basically the Devil) for the basis of his story.
The film itself has its roots in arthouse cinema and is heavily influenced by Alejandro Jodorowsky. This leads to a film where the narrative and dialogue become less important than the imagery on screen. This can sometimes lead to some pretty boring and impenetrable films, but thankfully Born of Fire keeps you hooked until the end. The performances from Peter Firth and Suzan Crowley (who throughout kept reminding me of Kate Bush) are very strong and engaging, but the real star here are the absolutely stunning locations. The stepped salt pools of Pamukkale are used extensively and they provide an ethereal backdrop to the supernatural story unfolding onscreen. The nearby caverns are also used as the home of the Master Musician, with the stalactites and natural orange glow giving a real sense of hell on earth. And all this is captured by the truly wonderful cinematography of Bruce McGowan (Letter to Brezhnev).
This Blu-ray release by Indicator comes with a nice selection of extras. Top of the pile is the short film Qâf – The Sacred Mountain, Dehlavi’s acclaimed art-documentary, shot during the production of Born of Fire and featuring a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream and Popol Vuh, chronicling a volcanic eruption in hypnotic detail. Playing with Fire is a new interview with Dehlavi in which he discusses the making of Born of Fire and Qâf including the involvement of Film Four. The interview with Peter Firth is less insightful as it is mainly an overview of his career, but the interview with composer Colin Towns is excellent describing how he created the incredible soundtrack by using Eastern and Western influences. The extras are rounded off by the usual collection of stills and trailers.
Although not quite the full-on horror film I was expecting, the incredible visual style, strong acting and flawless directing makes Born of Fire a film I would still highly recommend. Especially, if you have more eclectic tastes than the average filmgoer.
Born of Fire is released on Blu-ray by Indicator and includes the following extras:
• Qâf – The Sacred Mountain (1985, 27 mins): Jamil Dehlavi’s short film
• Playing with Fire (2018, 18 mins): new and exclusive interview with director Jamil Dehlavi
• The Silent One Speaks (2018, 35 mins): new and exclusive interview in which iconic actor Nabil Shaban recalls his experience of working on the film
• Interview with Peter Firth (2009, 13 mins)
• In Another World (2018, 17 mins): new and exclusive interview with composer Colin Towns
• US trailer
• Stills and posters gallery
• Location photography: a gallery of images from actor Nabil Shaban’s personal collection
• Limited edition exclusive 36-page booklet with new essays by Dr Ali Nobil Ahmad, writer Raficq Abdulla, and actor Nabil Shaban