The Dam


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Dam
"Built on strong imagery rather than substantive narrative." | Photo: Courtesy of KVIFF

“Somewhere on the banks of the great nile works a man whose life is made of mud,” reads the French intertitle at the start of Ali Cherri’s film. Like that mud, this film is, in some ways, elemental but it’s also a slippery customer that shape-shifts when you least expect it. In addition to being a filmmaker, Cherri is a multimedia visual artist and it shows in this enigmatic film - the third part of a trilogy which began with short films Digger and The Disquiet - which is built on strong imagery rather than substantive narrative.

The action takes place near the Merowe dam in Sudan. In docu-real scenes we see men (who are all brick makers in real life) go about their business, digging the mud and pushing it into frames before it sets in the sun. The talk of revolution and the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir overheard on their radios seems a long way off but, Cherri’s film suggests, most things naturally drift downstream. Among the workers is Maher (Maher El Kahir), who has an unexplained injury on his back that has made cracks on his skin like mud in the heat.

Copy picture

Once the working day is done the men wash in the river, something which looks more innocuous than a phone call Maher makes might suggest. The roar of water when the dam gates are open also indicates just how strong the currents might be. Maher is being carried on the tide of something much more otherworldly, making pilgrimages out into the desert that match in spirit, if not geography, those he makes in his dreams. There he is building something mysterious - first glimpsed only in silhouette - but which later proves to be sentient, or at least appears that way to Maher.

Maher maybe a sculptor of sorts but it's the artistry of Cherri that you notice. He takes his time, so that cinematographer Bassem Fayad’s camerawork can capture the rhythm of the working day or Maher lost in thought. The desert and river landscapes are also beautifully rendered. Even a kettle sitting over heat has the quality of a still life.

The spirit of folklore flows through Maher’s task - but whether the thing he is creating is an achievement or a folly is left ambiguous, not to say opaque. Whatever its true nature, its mere presence is a reminder, perhaps a reflection, of the unsettling times in the country. An act of violence on the unsuspecting also speaks to those unseen undercurrents, perhaps barely felt by these men as they go about their daily grind, but no less potentially dangerous for that.

Reviewed on: 12 Apr 2023
Share this with others on...
The Dam packshot
Sudan, near the Merowe dam. Maher works in a traditional brickyard fed by the waters of the Nile. Every evening, he secretly builds a mysterious construction made of mud.
Amazon link

Director: Ali Cherri

Writer: Bertrand Bonello, Ali Cherri, Geoffroy Grison

Starring: Maher El Khair

Year: 2022

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: Serbia, Germany, Sudan, France

Search database: