Kama Meets Nile

in 14th Flahertiana Documentary Film Festival Perm

by Julia Khomiakova

Life is hard under the burning sun of Northern Sudan. Every drop of water, every piece of food demands huge efforts. The habitants of Abu Haraz, a small, poor village built around a life-giving oasis surrounded by palms, should be grateful to the government for its promise that they will live in new houses supplied with electricity! They will watch TV! They will no longer need to cook on fire: electricity and water supply make possible to do it in a modern civilized way! How on earth can one love a patriarchal village like Abu Haraz with its clay houses in which every palm log is precious?! Well, the new town, with its houses, standard, and actually not very comfortable, sometimes looks like kind of African Gulag… But what does it mean in comparison with electricity? The construction of the huge hydroelectric power station will solve a lot of problems for the whole country. No time for sentimentality. Life goes on! And for this purpose Abu Haraz must die.

Abu Haraz, directed by Maciej J. Drygas, won the main prize of the festival, the Golden Nanook. It is not surprising that this Polish film about Northern Sudan was met so friendlily here — in the middle of Russia, on the edge of Europe. Our multiple hydroelectric power stations built on great rivers — Dnieper, Volga, Angara, Yenisey and other mighty water arteries — had already submerged thousands of villages and even several small cities under heavy grey waters of man-made lakes. Among my own friends there are natives of such villages who see their childhood homes only in their dreams and will never visit the drowned graves of grandparents. Here in Perm the huge water storage basin on the wide and mighty Kama river (tributary of Volga) had submerged the oldest historic villages and towns in which the industrial development of the Urals started in the early 16th century. Poem About The Sea was made in 1958 from Alexander Dovzhenko’s script by Yulia Solntseva, his widow. The tragedy of doomed Ukrainian villages submerged after construction of the Kakhovskaya hydroelectric power station was considered an unfortunate side effect of Soviet industrialization, although the film, made under the pressure of Soviet censorship, pretended to persuade the audience that a new and happy life would heal all the wounds. In Russian Soviet literature the novel Farewell To Matyora (1976) by Valentin Rasputin (also native of the submerged South-East Siberian village) is especially famous. Larissa Shepitko was preparing to shoot an adaptation of Farewell, but a tragic road accident ended her life and the work was completed by her husband Elem Klimov. His Farewell was released in 1981, two years after that tragedy. Russian documentary filmmakers, like Nikolay Makarov in his film The Sea Spread Wide (1987), along with its sequel The Sea Spread Wide: Time To Collect The Stones (2005), also tried to draw the public attention to this problem, both social and ecological. Maciej Drygas had graduated from the cameramen’s faculty of VGIK, and in his film you can feel the influence of Flaherty, but you can also sense, in the skillful digital shooting by Andrzej Musial and the tragic music by Pawel Szymanski, this late Soviet films tradition. Maciej Drygas should by all means know Russian Soviet art sources, and some compositions in Abu Haraz may seem like direct quotations from Farewell To Matyora, in which nobody could cut down neither burn the huge “Royal Larch”. In Abu Haraz the big palms, pride of the village, remain under dirty water, waiting for their death — or for the Final Judgement? Streams of water slowly surround the ruined village. Some villagers still approach it in boats (just like on Charon’s ferry across the Styx). This is more than coincidence. This is our civilization’s code. The geographical names in the Urals show traces of tribes which had disappeared, traces of forgotten languages and ancient civilizations.

But where on Earth can you find a place without a secret history? The saddest part of this is that mankind really can forget anything and dispense with anybody. Abu Haraz will not save a single village doomed to submerging for the sake of electricity and progress. However, a new palm is slowly growing in the new town from the seed of Abu Haraz palm. Nobody vanishes without a trace.

Edited by José Teodoro