An independent travel/ethnographic film about the culture and music of the displaced Nubians will be screened at a festival in Bahrain early next month. According to the February 6 – 12 issue of Gulf Weekly, the film, “Memories of Utopia,” will be shown at the Coral Beech Club on the Al Fateh Corniche in Bahrain. Another Bahrain news source contradicts the date, however, and indicates that the festival, including the film showing, has already occurred on Wednesday evening last week.
In any case, the film sounds as if it is quite worthwhile. It was made by two experienced producers, Marco Morelli, an Italian, and an Egyptian colleague, Najla Rizk. The two set out in 2005 in a small riverboat along with a guide and a small crew to film Nubian villages along the Nile that survived despite the flooding caused by the Aswan Dam in the early 1960s. The film makers journeyed up the reservoir south of Aswan, then traveled into Sudan to document the ancient traditions of the Nubians in that country. They focused on recording the music of the people they encountered.
According to Marco, “it was a way to capture the traditions, music and memories of a people whose culture is disappearing.” He added that “it was a beautiful, moving experience. The people, the atmosphere and their culture were incredible. Through their music you can understand their history and the nostalgia they feel for their lost lands.”
The two producers learned from the Nubians that their ancient music infuses their lives. It is their way of continuing their traditional civilization, which was mostly destroyed by Lake Nasser (in Sudan, called Lake Nubia). The focus of the film is on their guide, a Nubian named Fikri El Kachif, whom Najla first met at Abu Simbel in 1997.
Fikri had been forced to leave his village due to the rising waters when he was nine. He held a job as a tour guide at Abu Simbel so he could tell tourists about the ancient arts of his submerged homeland. As he and Najla became friends, he introduced her to other Nubians. She soon conceived the idea of producing a film about him that centered upon a journey to reconnect with the land that the Nubians referred to as their lost utopia. After she met Marco, they decided to pool their very limited financial resources and make the river trip as co-directors of the film.
They had a tiny boat that tended to break down constantly. As they traveled south, they captured footage of the displaced Nubians plus a lot of scenes of the desert landscape. Then they went to Sudan to continue visiting the Nubians, where they found wonderful villages.
“Neither Najla nor I had been to Sudan,” Marco said, “and we didn’t know what to expect. But everywhere we went, the people were very warm and hospitable and always offered us food. In one village, the chief welcomed us and that evening by candle light everyone started to play music. It was a beautiful atmosphere.”
Fikri, himself an accomplished musician, introduced the film makers to numerous other Nubian performers. They incorporated into the film scenes of Nubians playing ancient, traditional songs. Nubian drumming fills the production. The sadness of the work is that so much of Nubian culture is being lost—forgotten as the Nubians lose contact with their roots.
“Song after song is being forgotten,” the son of Fikri says in the film. But Najla explains that the Nubians who are returning to villages along the Nile are trying to keep their traditions and music alive. The producers interviewed numerous people for the film who said they had moved many times, higher and higher, so they could continue to live next to the river.
“I was struck by how the Nubians were willing to go through incredible hardships in order to go back and live on the banks of the Nile,” Najla explained in an earlier interview. “Their struggle to maintain their music, language and traditions was peaceful, non-violent and yet with a force and insistence that just emphasised the spirit that had impressed me from the beginning.”
The producers distilled 30 hours of footage down to a 52 minute documentary film. “Memories of Utopia” is evidently for sale in DVD format—sales and contact details are given on the film website. A brief excerpt is available on YouTube. Unfortunately, a search of the WorldCat database, which includes the holdings of thousands of libraries around the world, does not show any record of the film in any institution. It would be an appropriate purchase for any public or academic library that supports an interest in the Middle East or peace studies.