Digger seeks tombs’ secrets

The Digger, Ali Cherri's latest short film, receives its Dubai debut as part of A Hard Day's Night, the latest summer film festival from Cinema Akil and Alserkal Avenue. Featuring archaeological sites from Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, the film raises questions about the role that artefacts, remains and museums play in the construction of national identities in the present.

A still from The Digger showing Sultan Zeib Khan, the caretaker of the Neolithic necropolis at Jebel al-Buhais in Sharjah. Courtesy of the artist and filmmaker Galerie Imane Farès.
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A movie shot in Sharjah’s desert addresses lost civilisations, catastrophe and erasure through a tombs caretaker. The mood of the film, which operates at a point where art and archaeology meet, is otherworldly.

In 2014, Ali Cherri set off on a journey into Sharjah’s desert interior, his mind preoccupied by post-apocalyptic thoughts.

The Lebanese artist was scouting for locations for his latest project, a docu-essay that would form a companion piece to his Beirut-based film The Disquiet (2013).

The result was The Digger (2015), a 24-minute film that receives its Dubai debut tonight as part of Cinema Akil and Alserkal Avenue's new summer film season, A Hard Day's Night.

The Disquiet explored the effect of an earthquake, a catastrophe that Cherri deployed as a metaphor for the profound crisis facing his home and the wider Middle East, and in his 2014 search for locations the filmmaker was looking for landscapes that contained traces of civilisations that had long since disappeared.

“If catastrophe is already happening and is inevitable,” Cherri asks,“then how can we survive that catastrophe?”

In March 2014, Cherri’s idea had won him a coveted production programme grant from the Sharjah Art Foundation and it was thanks to this support, and against the background of ISIL’s continuing looting and destruction of archaeological sites in Syria, that the artist went in search of the UAE’s antiquities.

“The destruction of all the sites in the region was very much in the news when I’d made my application. Archaeology had become a very hot topic and I was looking at archaeological sites as places that have managed to survive the catastrophe of time,” the artist says.

“At the start I was looking for a post-apocalyptic landscape that had these traces within it, and I wanted to make a film without anyone in it.”

After visiting the Sharjah Archaeological Museum, Cherri visited the early Bronze Age, Umm an-Nar tombs at Mleiha and the mountain necropolis Jebel Al Buhais but it was there that his plans were thrown into disarray thanks to a meeting with the site's Pakistani caretaker, Sultan Zeib Khan.

Originally employed at Mleiha, Mr Khan has been involved in excavations and looked after the tombs at Jebel Al Buhais for 20 years.

“When I met Sultan I became fascinated by his character, his knowledge of the place and his stories and from that moment the film became focused on him and his daily routine. Sultan knows the place, he is a part of the landscape.

“We tried to shoot his friend as well, one of the other caretakers, but he was completely camera shy and whenever we put him in front of the camera he couldn’t move any more,” Cherri says. “But it was really great working with Sultan. I have a lot of footage that I shot with him, close-ups and interviews, but in the film we decided to keep our distance with the camera, we never get close.”

Apart from the sound of the desert wind and the lights from a passing but unseen vehicle, Mr Khan is one of the few sources of animation in The Digger, a film that uses long, static takes and meticulously framed shots to depict a bleached landscape that speaks of erasure and disappearance, absence and loss.

The effect of the film is otherworldly and when Mr Khan appears it is in a series of carefully-choreographed routines that show him emerging from the nocturnal landscape by lamplight or investigating archaeological sites at Mleiha, Jebel Al Buhais or Jebel Hafeet.

“I started by observing what Sultan did during his daily routine but then I wanted to take that to an extreme so that it became a kind of performative gesture, a reminiscence of a ritual that used to have a meaning that is now forgotten, and which is now repeated as if it is stuck in a loop,” says Cherri.

The effect turns Mr Khan into a revenant, a seeker who appears to haunt the tombs and empty graves in his charge, and who searches for some unknown truth by looking at the earth like some spectral archaeologist.

“The moment he walks into the frame you realise the scale of the space and its geography,” the artist says. “In a way he is sucked into the landscape but he is also the reference point that gives the landscape a sense of scale and meaning.”

The meanings that are now being ascribed to artefacts, archaeological sites and museums, both in the UAE and throughout the wider Middle East, have provided Cherri with a rich source of material that he has investigated in a number of installations since 2014.

“I thought that the desert might be a place and an occasion to write a different kind of history and I was hoping to see a museology that was not the western type that we see in the rest of the world,” the artist says.

“But I was disappointed because what is happening throughout the whole of the Gulf, in Kuwait and Qatar as well as the Emirates, is that history is being told in a western way through the fetishisation of objects.”

Both Fragments, a display of material gathered by Cherri from archaeological digs, wildlife parks and auction houses around the world, and the 12-minute-long video installation Petrified are currently on display in the Sharjah Art Foundation's exhibition This Time is Out of Joint and as part of A Taxonomy of Fallacies: The Life of Dead Objects at the Sursock Museum in Beirut, which is also screening The Digger.

As Nora Razian, the Sursock Museum’s head of programmes and exhibitions, wrote in the exhibition guide to A Taxonomy of Fallacies, Cherri’s investigation of the use of archaeology and artefacts not only reveals the forces at work in contemporary museum practice but in nation-building as well.

“Still unable to fully shake off its colonial roots, the field of archaeology and its attendant spaces, including the museum and the archaeological site, continue to be implicated in discourses of nation building, ethnic authenticity, and claims to territory.”

In October 2014 Cherri was chosen to be the artist in residence for the NEARCH project, an initiative supported by the European Union and conducted by the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) and the German Archaeological Institute to explore the relationship between archaeology and art and to interpret and communicate the science for and to a wider public.

“Archaeology was born in the colonial period but it changed and became a nationalist project, especially 40, 50 or 60 years ago in Syria, Iraq and Libya when it was co-opted by Arab states and today you can also see it as a nationalist project throughout the Gulf and in the Emirates,” the artist says.

“These discoveries are being used to say ‘these are our origins, this is where we come from’ and now the emirates are constructing museums and stories and founding mythologies of the nation.

“I find it very interesting that this is happening at a time when other nation states, that were also based on these origins and histories such as Libya and Syria and Iraq, are collapsing.”

Despite what he describes as the attraction of first order readings of The Digger Cherri is, he insists, more interested in the aesthetic rather than the political themes that he explores in the film, issues that connect it with his earlier work including The Disquiet.

“My real interest in the film is in speaking about the uncanny, the invisible and about absence,” Cherri says.

“What was fascinating about Jebel Al Buhais and Jebel Hafeet was that burials were taking place around the base of the mountains 4,500 or 5,000 years ago and I know that there are thousands of graves there.

“I thought the idea of a mountain surrounded by dead people was a very eerie and poetic image which is why I tried to include the mountains as the other characters in the film.”


Ali Cherri's The Digger will be screened as part of Alserkal Avenue and Cinema Akil's A Hard Day's Night summer film programme, which opens tonight at the A4 Space cinema room at Alserkal Avenue, Dubai. For more details, visit alserkalavenue.ae or facebook.com/CinemaAkil