The commercial exploitation of gender differencesin self-help books and chick-lit novels, for examplerelies on rigid definitions of manhood and womanhood, which is why François Kohler can give his documentary Desert Wind the tagline "what men talk about in the desert" and expect audiences to know what he's promising. Desert Wind follows a group of men on a two-week "encounter" in the Tunisian desert, as they confess hopes and fears that even their closest friends and relatives don't know. Here, at last, Kohler seems to say, is a side of men that you rarely see in movies. He might as well be touting footage of breakdancing nuns.
Only here's what Kohler isn't telling us: The kind of men who'd sign up for a trip like this aren't exactly the kind who'd have trouble opening up, and the kind of men who could afford a trip like this aren't exactly "regular guys." Before the journey even gets underway, these dudes are burning clothes ("I say goodbye to the armor that protected me") and a dead mother's will ("We are all responsible for our own lives") and giving thanks to "the wind that allows us to move on." And that's only a prelude to mock combat, campfire chats about likes and dislikes ("I like raspberries... I don't like losing my place in line"), and the day when they all strip naked and talk about their body images and sexual histories. (The spirit of honesty takes a beating when one man insists he didn't masturbate for the first time until he was 23.)
The desert looks beautiful, even on digital video, and there's some riveting theater when the men tell their personal stories and break down crying, even though the moment dies when the licensed psychotherapist and spiritual guide asks, "What are you discovering right now?" The problem with Desert Wind is that Kohler takes everything at face value. Wouldn't it have been more useful to make this trip the centerpiece of a longer documentary that follows the men before Tunisia and, more importantly, after? And couldn't Kohler have asked some pointed questions to puncture some of the Iron John pretension? At the least, someone might've trained the camera on the Tunisian attendants, who take care of the camels and the cooking, and are rewarded with the sight of flabby Europeans bitching about their mothers. Those guys probably have something relevant to say about "what men talk about in the desert."