Take some dirt. Mix with water. Add heat. Make a brick, or a work of art. Build a civilization. The simple artistic elements of world-making and the complex political drama of world-building are the dynamic core of The Dam, Lebanese artist and first-time filmmaker Ali Cherri’s chimerical excursion into the mythology of mud and the conflicted mind of humanity.
The Dam is set in a brickmaking camp along the Nile River in Sudan, against the backdrop of the 2019 coup d’état that deposed Omar al-Bashir. The real-life players in this surrealist drama labor at their ancient trade downstream from the Merowe Dam, working the mud along the seemingly peaceful riparian zones on the periphery of a revolution. Far removed from the unrest and violence that wracks Khartoum, they are still subject to the vagaries and petty reprisals of power once again laying waste to this schismatic land.
A truly special film
The cast entirely comprises non-professionals, ordinary employees going about their daily business. While appearing as fictional versions of themselves, they are no strangers to the civil wars that have plagued the Sudanese people for 40 years. The use of unknown, but authentic actors gives the film a mimetic edge that urges audiences to read the slowly emerging symbolic content of their mundane lives more carefully. And by distancing the action away from the fighting itself, connected only by the waves of a single radio in the camp, we glimpse a deeply personal and psychological experience of this chronic socio-political conflict.
Thus it is through an intimate engagement with the divided, yet determined mind of an unlikely hero, Mahir Al-Khair, who goes by Maher, that this “political fable” generates its full aesthetic and spiritual impact. Director Ali Cherri, speaking after a screening of The Dam in New York, said that al-Khair’s dream was to star in his own action movie. But in a cinematic move pregnant with irony, instead of taking up arms in the film he is compelled to construct and inhabit a mystical dream state where the creative impulse can burst through the fear, frustration, and senseless violence that mark his precarious existence.
So he steals away from camp for reasons that remain a mystery to his friend and benefactor, a Muslim cleric. Does this affect his performance on the job, does he miss days as a result, or is the absentee paymaster of the camp just a playboy and a crook? It is hard to tell, for just like the heavily silted waters of the river, the narrative isn’t always clear. The symbolic power of the film rests in how much is suggested, how much imagined.
In any case Maher is stiffed on his pay, which makes his situation worse given that his girlfriend is pregnant. With the financial, social, and domestic pressures mounting, he is nonetheless driven by a nameless desire into the liminal void of the desert to set his imagination free, in the process creating an avatar of the unconscious and his own afflicted body.
Fleeing from the cultural dictates of a “manly” death in battle and his own self-estrangement, for Maher the mud is life. If only by a telling twist of fate, the English title of the film, the “Dam” tracks with the Hebrew-Arabic namesake of the first human, A-dam, the “mud-man.” The soil of Africa gave birth to the first humans, and the waters of the Nubian Nile some of the earliest civilizations. In the figure of Maher the anxiety of cultural influence is embodied writ large and we can sense his despair at being reduced to a spectator before the confluence of forces that would seal his fate.
A long history and a complex reality
Going back to the Kingdom of Kerma in the 25th century BCE, Sudan has one of the longest histories of any country on earth. The rising and falling of empires, revolutions, messianic leaders, dictators, warlords, and the rebooted scramble for Africa has bequeathed to its present-day inhabitants a land radically divided by ethnicity, religion, language, and wealth.
The revitalization of the brick industry in Sudan has been one avenue of economic development to put the country on a more sustainable path. Likewise, the largest contemporary hydroelectric project on the entire continent, in theory, the Merowe Dam, was built to generate power and offset losses from oil fields claimed by South Sudan when it voted for independence.
In practice, of course, each of these projects have had environmental and human impacts that are difficult to reconcile. The construction of the dam faced considerable opposition, pitting local populations against the Sudanese government, a consortium of sovereign wealth funds and multinationals, as well as archaeologists and preservation groups. A fragile balance was struck, and tenuous solutions achieved, but resentments linger.
Out of this combustible mix of geopolitical, cultural, and affective energies, Maher forges his icon of primordial man. It takes on life, not through the breath of any specific god, but through the fire of his own creative mind. The sculpture reconciles the overdetermined materiality of Maher’s decomposing and recomposing world into a ritual image, symbol for the cycle of creation and destruction at the root of humanity’s mythic mind—and mirror of the revolving door of factions and would-be regimes that vie for supremacy.
Like the rising and falling of the Nile, the opening and closing of the sluices at Merowe, and the dangerous currents it releases into the river, the waking and sleeping moments of civilization are marked by dreams both haunted and hopeful. The Dam is a film that painstakingly recovers and reveals the shadow-side of a consciousness on the margins of sanity, ever in danger of slipping into magical thought, but courageously retaining its powers of expression.
It was supposed to be a new dawn for Sudan. But as its people once again awake to a nightmare, and a world on fire, one work of art cannot put out the conflagration. But like the film, and the river itself, it can irrigate the mind of those willing to do the impossible in a distracted age: pay attention long enough for some semblance of a workable long-term peace to emerge.
No mere escapist fantasy, The Dam invites us to make some mud and redirect the fire of war to a more constructive project: instead of throwing bricks, take the dust of demolished cities to build a dream for humanity that will not vanish as soon as our eyes are opened.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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