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The feature film debut of Lebanese visual artist Ali Cherri, The Dam is a surprisingly surreal tale set in Sudan playing as part of the CURRENTS section of this year’s New York Film Festival. Revolving around bricklayer Maher (real-life brickmaker Maher El Khair), the movie starts off as a relatively mundane drama, following his day-to-day activities at the brickyard as well as his excursions away from work to tend to a project of his own. However, things take a turn for the strange when it’s revealed that the project he’s been working on is a living mound of mud that speaks to him. Meanwhile, change is in the air as a popular uprising drives the country’s dictator from power. While it’s unclear what thematic significance Maher’s creation has in relation to the unrest unfolding across his homeland, it’s made clear that it has great personal significance to him. With Maher dutifully attending to the creature, it represents an escape from the monotony and tedious work of the brickyard for something that brings him personal fulfillment.
From the opening shot of Maher driving a motorcycle against the backdrop of a mountain, Cherri finds much of interest and beauty in the desolate environment that the film’s characters inhabit. Remote and populated by a few, crude buildings, their workplace feels removed from the revolution and subsequent coup sweeping the country even as they hear the news over TV and radio. This is accomplished partly by Cherri’s predilection for wide shots, often capturing action like the laborers working in the foreground and sprawling desert landscapes in the background. The resulting impression is one of smallness and pointlessness in the grand scheme of things, a sentiment that could describe Maher’s own feelings toward his job and station in life. Another technique that Cherri makes frequent use of is side profile shots, showing everything from Maher mounting his cycle to a silhouette of him working on the mound from this unusual angle. It’s strange yet hypnotic, which perhaps befits the overall atmosphere of the movie.
Though parts of its offbeat story and political allegory might strike some as oblique, The Dam is nevertheless a visually compelling and unexpectedly-grounded fantasy that engages one’s senses and intellect.
Produced by KinoElektron, Imane Fares, Vega Foundation, DGL Travel, Twenty Twenty Vision Filmproduktion GmbH, and Trilema. Dulac Distribution owns French theatrical distrubtion rights and Indie Sales owns worldwide theatrical distribution rights.