Wael Shawky's captivating film work “Al Araba Al Madfuna III” is on view at Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art in Copenhagen through 30 January 2022. A hundred tonnes of sand form a rolling landscape in the centre's underground exhibition space, combining with clear sky-blue walls as the backdrop for the projection.
The film is set in and around Al Araba Al Madfuna, a village in Upper Egypt. The starting point of the work is Shawky’s personal experiences of the villagers’ relationship with the nearby archaeological site of Abydos. Once a religious centre in pharaonic times, Abydos is now a tourist attraction and source of income for local residents. The very objects and sites that once catalysed religious endeavour are now commodities with tangible economic value. This shift between divergent strategies of endeavour – one religious and one materialistic – is also the core theme of the short story “The Sunflower” (1983) by Egyptian author Mohamed Mustagab (1938-2005), on which the manuscript to Shawky’s film is based.
Shawky casts child actors to play the roles of the film’s adult characters, but overdubs their dialogue with adult voices and absurdly exaggerates the costumes and scenery: the large beards are clearly fake and the robes are far too big for the slender children’s bodies. These surreal elements are further accentuated by the film being shot in negative, with bluish and violet shades casting a chimerical glow over the scenes.