The Dam Ali Cherri (2019 Sudan – Euro finance) Maher el Khair
viewed at Losing the Plot 10 June 23; ticket £5
Neptune Frost Anisia Uzeyman, Saul Williams (2022; Rwanda + US/Eur finance)
viewed at Losing the Plot 11 June 23; ticket £5
out of Africa…?
Two films seen at the Star and Shadow’s ‘Losing the Plot’, both with African settings, both written by non Africans, though Neptune frost has a Rwandan co-director, Anisia Uzeyman (who also is credited with the cinematography). Ali Cherri is a Lebanese artist; Saul Williams a New York poet rapper music-artist.
With directors such as Diop Mambéty, Sembene, Sissako, Lacote we have African directors making films in Africa, depicting African situations and issues. So when artists/filmmakers enter the continent to make films with African players that depict Africa the question is to what extent are they playing out their own imported scenarios and using the African actors and settings simply as a legitimising backcloth against which they can endorse or give a spurious legitimacy to their own outlooks and ideas. Sometimes ‘outsiders’ can bring a fresh dynamic vision to new areas of concern; sometimes they simply exploit novel settings to foist their own preconceived notions upon situations they do not understand.
There is one other point to consider in relation to the co-directors of Neptune Frost: Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman. The latter is Rwandan born and described on-line as an international actor playwright and director. The ‘international’ tag of the description has a putative implication about the self image of Uzeyman who is married to her co-director Saul Williams and lives in LA. But these are perhaps unfair observations. More to the point about the claim by ‘Neptune Frost’ to be an African film is that the script was written by Saul Williams. ‘Neptune Frost’ is a film in structure and content that has been formed by the writer, who has then co-directed his own script. The film comes across as being at least 75% Williams. In particular the dialogue and the faux sci-fi thematic is strongly marked out as being part of the substance of the body of his work over the past 25 years. It’s a New York film characterised by the concerns (legitimate in their own right) of black African Amerikans. Williams owns the Neptune Frost script. The rest of the movie is scissors and paste.
Ali Cherri’s movie ‘The Dam’ has a primal authenticity, both actual and psychic. Because the film has core concerns in relation to the forces working through the social and psychic interplay of inequality, to a certain extent these issues might be depicted anywhere (in this particular ‘The Dam’ reminded me of Mark Jenkin’s ‘Bait’: the setting was perfect but the issues underlying the script would have fitted other places other times). Again in the case of ‘The Dam’ Cherri’s concerns are all the stronger for being set in Sudan, at a location by the river Nile. Cherri’s script foregoes the use of classical narrative connections. It is an associative scenario. The film is structured around an oppositional contrivance: the 2019 popular uprisings (relayed through television pictures) in Khartoum against al-Bashir (which led to the military coup that toppled him), set against the men labouring at a mud brick works situate on the banks of the Nile beneath the Merowe Dam, from which his film takes its title.
The making of the mud bricks is done entirely by hand. Hard back breaking work that has a physical language that references Pharaohic times, ‘the dawn of civilisation’. The process is covered in detail by Cherri: the shaping drying stacking firing. Cherri’s opening comprises a wide shot of an antediluvian desert valley (reminiscent of Monument Valley). A man on a motor cycle, Maher, rides across the vista. He is one of the ‘brick’workers. As the film develops we understand that Maher rides out regularly to a remote hidden gorge where he is constructing a huge mud human effigy. It’s a vast figure, with its own wood scaffolding, that he builds and moulds with the skills used in his work.
This effigy is the product of Maher’s mind. His psychic response to a primal urgent unbearable need to externalise the monstrous forces that are consuming him, as if all the evil forces abroad in the world could be contained, compressed in this figure. But of course as a product of the intensity of his need to create this figure (which like the biblical Adam, like the Golem, is made of mud) it comes alive with an awful vividity its terrible aspects working burrowing through Maher’s consciousness bestowing on him deluded but awesome and chaotic powers of destruction. He experiences delirium that mimics the experiences of Sudan itself, like the Merowe Dam that both bestows and takes away life, contains and unpredictably unleashes its waters according to its own hidden deathly logic. In the end a Biblical torrent of rain destroys Maher’s effigy, dissolving it back to the liquid mud from whence it came, the liquid mud from which all life came. And as the sluice gates of the dam open once again, the huge pipes spewing out millions of litres of water, there is a sweeping away of all before it, the mud and Maher himself who swims away with the current.
Cherri’s ‘The Dam’ presents as an allegorical tryst which contrasts the collective action of people to change the political regime with Maher’s individualised need to fashion a psychic response to his situation, his urge to fashion a symbolic structure that represents the terror he lives with. It’s a projection that can only consume him and allow him to embrace his own self destruction. A fate which given the consequences of the conflict in Sudan today between the two opposing war lords, also seems to have overtaken the optimistic projections of the collective. In a sense the collective and the individual response though very different in form both flow from the same well spring of injustice oppression and the daily threat of annihilation.
William’s and Uzeyman’s Nepture Frost, shot in Rwanda feels like an opportunist projection of New York/ US black culture onto the screen of Africa. Perhaps taking cue from Bowie’s Ziggy, William’s has fostered a script, inspired by the mining of coltan, revolving about a cyber sci-fi conceit, that allows the characters to travel through space and time. It comes across as one thing after another, a script that serves no other purpose other than to get from one music video set up to another. The music is fine; the interlinking dialogue by contrast is clunky. What might work in the context of rap, spat out in conviction, when spoken as ‘lines’ comes across as po faced gnomic utterances so tricked out with meaning as to be meaningless: metaphysical gobbledegook. As image is piled on image – masks – extreme make up – magical realist stuff – shimmering graphics – the feeling is of an exploitation of Africana exploiting the exotica of Africa to express an Afro-American not an African rap sheet.