Basim Magdy's The Dent is a fictional story of a small town that aims for international recognition. Its residents put together various plans for greatness – a bid to host the Olympics, the incubation of dinosaur eggs, a race of zebra-striped elephants that can mine for gold – but fail, again and again. Eventually, their hopes dim. It's a remarkable allegory for human ambition, played out in murky, poetic scenes.
The 20-minute film is now showing at the Art Jameel Project Space in Alserkal Avenue as part of the long-term loan of a collection of the Abraaj Group Art Prize to Art Jameel. (The Dent won the Abraaj Group Art Award at Art Dubai in 2014.)
Magdy, who is based in Egypt, shot the film's disparate images – of marching bands, tourists in museums, circus elephants, and tower blocks – in cities from Paris to Quebec, New York to Madeira over a number of years. Varied shades of tone and sunlight, building type and vegetation trade geographical specificity for the universality of desire. The film is made on Super 16mm – a kind of stock that lends a grainier look to the finished product – and Magdy toyed with the footage. Some segments he pickled in vinegar, such as the elephant at the film's end; others he over- or double-exposed. A shot of two firemen spraying water on a burning building is played backwards.
The resulting work feels submerged in mystery: like a feeling of sadness after you’ve forgotten the reason. The laconic subtitles that provide the film’s narrative are not much of an anchoring point. They echo of the pace of the image track, dropping strange hints about this town’s exploits. Wry jokes, political whispers, and a strong defence of animals emerge, if you let go of following the story.
The Dent is one of Magdy's most ambitious works. It began, he said in a 2015 interview with the Brooklyn Rail, when he was doing a residency in a small coastal town in Canada, and noticed a dent in the wall of the former ice hockey rink that housed his temporary studio. Near its end, the film shows an image of this dent, which, in the work's fiction, has been made by a circus elephant.The film's star, as far as that can be said, the pachyderm headbutts the arena's wall after realising he has been painted in black-and-white zebra stripes.
"It all started with a dent like a ghost," the subtitles read, closing the film. "At an inexplicable height on the facade of the arena. When I asked, they said, 'it was the circus elephant'." In 2014, when the film was first shown, many viewers assumed it was about the desire for change in Egypt – which Magdy denied. Four years on, The Dent is suspended in time. Its visual language of collaged images, its analogue film stock, and even the poetry of the subtitles are part of a tradition of experimental film that is now knowingly historical: the work holds on to a slow pace of film against that done on digital media, with an aesthetic that favours quicker edits, disjunctive commentary, and first-person narrative.
This works to the film's advantage. Being shown in Dubai, the elephant in the room – if you forgive the pun – is that The Dent reflects on its current home, a one-time small Arabian fishing village with global ambitions. But the film itself moves away from this literal reading with the wretched inventiveness of its laughable schemes: the ideas of the character in the movie who is going to fail. The work becomes about people, not places – though in the end, our hearts are with the elephant, and I suspect Magdy's is, too.
The Dent is on show at the Art Jameel Project Space in Alserkal Avenue every day, except Sundays and Fridays, until June 13