Review: The Dam
by Kaleem Aftab
- CANNES 2022: Ali Cherri has crafted a bold, esoteric and aesthetically pleasing work set in a remote area of northern Sudan at the time of the 2019 military coup in the country
Beirut-born, Paris-based visual artist and filmmaker Ali Cherri's debut film, The Dam [+see also:
interview: Ali Cherri
film profile], is an esoteric affair that features a brick worker who, in his spare time, builds a talking mud monster in northern Sudan. The film is an allegory, but sometimes, the symbolism is as muddy as the hard work that construction worker Maher (Maher El Khair) is doing at the Merowe Dam.
The Dam is a standalone film, even though it is billed as the third part of a trilogy. The first two parts, The Digger and The Disquiet, are short films that aired at numerous festivals, including IFFR and CPH:DOX. Not having watched these previous works may have added to the confusion of this critic when suddenly a construction that Maher drives off each night to build starts talking. The use of nature in this way is reminiscent of writer Alan Moore's work in the Swamp Thing comics, where a parliament of trees responds to the destruction that man is inflicting on the Earth. It's a rather unexpected twist in a work unspooling in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, which straddles the boundary between cinema and gallery space.
At first, the film seems to be on surer and more familiar ground. We see African men hard at work in the blazing sunshine. The landscape is cut across by a dust road that seems to go on forever, past beautiful rocks and stunning horizons. Here, several men toil away. The camera pans between the bodies and the bricks, seemingly merging into one. The film shows in detail how mud bricks get made. It's a massive team effort, but there is little in the way of exposition to reveal what is being built and why. The sun moves from east to west. At the end of the day, the men bathe in the water. At this moment, Cherri pushes the focus onto a man, Maher, speaking on a telephone. It's a rare moment when a signal has reached this seemingly isolated land. Yet, in the modern, globalised world, the effect of a butterfly that flaps its wings elsewhere can always be felt. On the radio, news reports speak of revolts and protests over the leadership of Omar al-Bashir, who was deposed from power by a military coup in 2019. Once the call is over, Maher refuses to bathe with his co-workers and jumps on a borrowed motorbike. His journey is like looking at paintings, where every frame could be cut out and hung up on a gallery wall. Yet when he reaches his destination, the film morphs, and ideas about man's place in the universe and nature taking back control of the Earth begin to emerge.
The movie demonstrates how man's action causes nature to respond. As the protest gets quashed, the words spoken by this strange CGI concoction seem to change and encourage Maher to take his destiny into his own hands. He also wants revolution and to escape from his slave labour. Without any other means at his disposal, violence seems to be his only option. There is a suggestion that Maher must unblock the dam that exists metaphorically within him, and physically in the outside world. Yet the delivery of the film is so opaque that it leaves room for many interpretations, which is both The Dam's strength and its weakness.
The Dam is a French-Sudanese-German-Serbian co-production staged by KinoElectron, Galerie Imane Farès, Twenty Twenty Vision, Trilema Films and DGL Travel HQ. Its world sales are handled by Indie Sales.
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