For Lebanese visual artist and filmmaker Ali Cherri, the violence of war, chaos, and displacement find its way into the soil under our feet. In his feature film The Dam, set in northern Sudan, Cherri follows Maher (Maher El Khair), a quiet brick worker who spends his days toiling under the blazing sun. Day after day, Maher builds bricks with mud and water, born out of the Nile River. The work is backbreaking, and Maher and the other men who work with him are cheated out of fair wages. Yet, despite the presence of a painful wound on his back, shaky cellphone service that leaves him adrift from his loved ones, and news of the bloody civil uprisings in the central city, Maher toils on.
At night while the other men rest, Maher’s laboring continues. He slips away on a borrowed motorbike into a desert clearing. There, he constructs a mysterious structure made from mud. Though the structure is never explicitly named, the audience immediately recognizes Maher’s reverence for it and the diligent way he works on it. The structure is the key to his freedom. It is a symbol of a different kind of life he might have.
The Dam is visually stunning. Cherri’s lens captures the vast deserts of the Sudan where Maher works and lives and the sharp current of the river, where the men shower, play and even bleed. With so little dialogue in the film, which runs just about 80 minutes, the director depends on the landscape and his actors to fully deliver his narrative. However, it’s not always successful.
The archival news and radio footage from the 2019 coup d’état of former Sundanese President Omar al-Bashir orients the viewer in time and space. Yet, little else is known about Maher or the men he works with. Moreover, once the audience realizes he’s building such a massive structure without any aid, it seems futile, as if he’s asking for the life around him to implode somehow.
The dam itself, from where the film draws its title, is only showcased once. However, it’s so out of place from the things surrounding it that one might imagine the blood, destruction, and displacement that went into erecting the massive structure.
Cherri also takes his story a step further. Just as the audience is trying to unpack Maher’s motive, the filmmaker begins infusing surrealist elements into the plot. Maher begins dreaming of his structure, which has seemingly become life-like. Additionally, the earth around him begins to speak to him. Though Maher and his worksite are some distance from the brewing revolution, The Dam suggests that the violence has made its way to them through nature.
Yet because nothing is ever overtly stated, and we only get a small glimpse of Maher’s emotional state following a tragic event, Cherri leaves so much unsaid. Since there is little said about Sudan’s past and present state and because the film never truly addresses how violence affects the earth’s very core, The Dam felt unfinished. In the end, the film is a missed opportunity for something more.
The Dam was screened at the Cannes Film Festival on May 24, 2022, as a part of Unifrance’s Inaugural Critics Lab.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment
editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in Netflix’s Tudum, EBONY, JET,
ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis
on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a
cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her
reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide.