In the hidden corners of Serekunda, Gambia, while looking after their daughter Yama and their donkey Shamu, M. (a rubbish collector from Mali) awaits news of his wife whom has left them in search of better opportunities overseas. As the days go by, hope stretches further into the religious, guiding M. to carry out the ultimate proof of belief.
MORIAH follows the same methodology of my previous 2 works: AMERICANO! (SA 2021) and Song of All Ends (Lebanon 2022), pushing some aspects further.
As for my previous work, I was intended to explore a new country without any knowledge of the work I would have carried out. In this particular case, Gambia was entirely unknown to me. This opportunity was essential in trying to preserve my work from overthinking it beforehand.
In the months ahead of departure I analysed a philosophical subject dear to me over the past 20 years: the relation between analytical and religious comprehension of the World. A philosophical work, Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard, was the starting point of my analysis (more below).
After only 10 days roaming the streets of Banjul on my bicycle making countless, inspiring encounters, I met with Mohammed Keïta, a 30 y.o. rubbish collector who has immigrated from Mali 3 years before, with an enthusiastic energy and charisma.
From there a collaboration started, and in the following 4 weeks we worked tirelessly to develop and produce the project MORIAH.
Mohammed, Yama and Shamu are the central figures in the film. Their relationship was already established by the time I met them.
Mohammed arrived in Banjul 3 years before from Mali in search of work, leaving his mother, wife and 2 children behind. Following a year attempting at different jobs, he finally found an opportunity to buy a cart and an old donkey (Shamu) for little money.
While taking care of Shamu to recover from the mistreatments of his previous owner, Mohammed started his business as a rubbish collector, traversing by foot large parts of the city every morning, loading on his cart up to 1/2 ton of rubbish each trip and delivering it to the dumpster site of Serekunda.
Mohammed, contrary to other 'donkey men', has always had a different relationship with his donkey: to never overwork Shamu, to look after him like a family member and to always feed him proper grass, which he would collect daily from neighbourhood gardens.
Every afternoon after work Mohammed would spend his time in the company of Shamu, singing and drinking some tea. Here a 1 and half y.o. girl called Yama, born in the community, would run to Mohammed, to play with him and Shamu. This union was perhaps the strongest discovery during my research there. I knew from the beginning that it ought to be essential in the narrative of the film.
After discussing with her mother, I was allowed to involve little Yama in the project, under the supervision of her aunty. There followed 16 days of production spread in almost 4 weeks, working regularly with Mohammed outside his working hours, studying his work and relationship with the environment, Yama and the women at the Compound Suane Kounda, while editing on a daily basis our work and discussing how it could further develop.
To date, this is the most collaborative of processes I have so far produced.
* * *
“Faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off”
SK - Fear and Trembling
THE PHILOSOPHY OF MORIAH
A central aspect in MORIAH is the relation between the practical life of M., his desperate condition, and his growing infusion into the religious paradigma of whole-hearted faith. The passage between these two realms (from pragmatic to spiritual) is key in revealing a place where ethical judgment, as we know it and process it, cannot be applied.
Therefore: think of 'the worst possible action between men'. That which cannot be ethically justified under any circumstance. From there imagine to go against your most clear opinions, defeating your basic beliefs and moral principles, accepting that perhaps all you have judged is indeed incorrect, that much of what you thought is nothing but an incomplete series of 'calculations' without much ground and consequently deemed to be wrong, even though (I remind) you are up against 'the worst possible action between men’.
MORIAH aims at inviting the spectator into this process. Simply put: a mental exercise for the mind to be aware of a potential defeat, no matter the premises.
The most vivid example of this analysis and a fundamental work in the development of this project is Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling (more below), where the philosopher, in recounting the biblical story of Abraham, claims that the killing of Isaac is ethically wrong but religiously right.
* * *
Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”
And the two together set out for the place God had told Abraham about.
Abraham is the Hebrew patriarch of the Abrahamic religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In Islam, he is a link in the chain of Islamic prophets that begins with Adam and culminates in Muhammad.
Adam's role as the father of the human race is looked upon by Muslims with reverence. They see Adam as the first Muslim, as the Quran states that all the Prophets preached the same faith of Islam.
At some point in Isaac's youth, Abraham was commanded by God to offer his son up as a sacrifice in the land of Moriah. Along the way, Isaac asked his father where the animal for the burnt offering was, to which Abraham replied "God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering". Just as Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, he was interrupted by the angel of the Lord, and he saw behind him a "ram caught in a thicket by his horns", which he sacrificed instead of his son. (source: Wikipedia)
Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish theologian, philosopher, poet, social critic, and religious author who is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher.
Kierkegaard's theological work focuses on Christian ethics, the institution of the Church, the differences between purely objective proofs of Christianity, the infinite qualitative distinction between man and God, and the individual's subjective relationship to the God-Man Jesus the Christ, which came through faith. Much of his work deals with Christian love. He was extremely critical of the doctrine and practice of Christianity as a state-controlled religion. His psychological work explored the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with life choices.
By the mid-20th century, his thought exerted a substantial influence on philosophy, theology and Western culture in general. (source: Wikipedia)
If we were to briefly summarise the ethical basis under which SK develops his system, a quote from his work Either / Or might suffice: "If a person is sometimes in the right, sometimes in the wrong, to some degree in the right, to some degree in the wrong, who, then, is the one who makes that decision except the person himself, but in the decision may he not again be to some degree in the right and to some degree in the wrong? Or is he a different person when he judges his act than when he acts?". SK
"...continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling."
FEAR AND TREMBLING
In reflecting upon Abraham's act (to accept God's request and sacrifice his own son) we are to accept one ethical conclusion above all: that of Abraham as being ultimately a murderer.
However, through his actions prior to the event and the condition under which Abraham is put, For SK even the act of filicide becomes ethically unjudgeable, for: "the task God gave to Abraham was so horrifying that he could tell no one about it because no one would understand him. Ethics forbade it as well as aesthetics. Abraham became a knight of faith because he was willing to do what God asked of him. He was wrong as far as ethics is concerned but right as far as the Absolute is concerned. [...] wishing to be in the wrong is an expression of an infinite relationship, and wanting to be in the right, or finding it painful to be in the wrong, is an expression of a finite relationship! Hence, it is upbuilding always to be in the wrong-because only the infinite builds up; the finite does not!"
And he concludes: "I cannot understand Abraham, no one is able to. There is nothing I can learn from him but astonishment. Because faith begins where thinking leaves off" SK - Fear and Trembling
* * *
“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin.”
SK - Fear and Trembling
CONCLUSIONS ON THE PHILOSOPHY BEHIND MORIAH
Although apparently complex, the whole theme and the very reason why MORIAH was produced can be summarised as follows: judgment is under all circumstances a personal and subjective process, with which we all make relationships with the objects in this world. Judgment derives from the application of moral principles: the principles of right and wrong that are accepted by an individual or a social group.
Some judgments might come close to be universal (the 'golden rule' perhaps - the principle of treating others as one wants to be treated) but only closely so, yet they are all affected by the same condition: no judgment is fundamental because no moral principle is sufficiently universal.
If so, everything ought to be questioned, hence nothing can be completely answered, paradoxically not even 'the worst possible action between men'.
Colour 73’ - 1.43:1 - 4K
Mandinka, Bambara - English / French subtitles
Preproduction: March - June 2022
Production: July - August 2022
Postproduction: 2023 - 2024
Serekunda, Banjul, Gambia
ProRes 4:2:2 HQ 4K (UHD)
The equipment used for the film included: a Sony a7sIII with a vintage Angenieux 28-70 T2.6 zoom lens, a Zoom F6 sound recorder with shotgun and lapel mics, a tripod, few led panels and various accessories. Like for my other works, it was important to be able to move freely around locations (only a few kilometres apart from each other) on a bicycle, attracting minimal attention by carrying all in a backpack.
The team included myself and Mohammed, with which I produced and wrote the script; Oumar Traore, a local music producer who helped with sound; Elisa, my wife, supervising the script development and the editing; Fatoumata Sumbundu, the auntie of Yama, to help keeping our main location accessible and organised, plus many other locals as well as friends of Mohammed for access to locations, transport and food. It was a truly collaborative experience, where all those involved participated with enthusiasm and motivation.
After a first 10 days of prep, production was spread around 4 weeks and included 16 days of main photography plus 2 days dedicated exclusively to sound. Each day we would shoot according to Mohammed’s working hours, Yama’s sleeping times and Fatoumata’s school schedules, for no longer than 4-5 hours/day. I would then ingest, convert and edit the footage in my office in Kotu South, to better see the progress of the film. Then a schedule was made for the following production days.
On the very last day, we projected the first rough cut of the film to the main collaborators to offer an idea of the direction and main structure of the work.
Some problems became clear when scouting for the film.
The first issue was going to be reaching the various locations while most roads where completely flooded. At times a few blocks distance could transform into a several kilometres journey. This was a normal situation as July and August are the wettest months in the region.
After a few days studying the ‘donkey-men’ at work, I started taking some pictures and videos on my phone. Surprisingly this did not attract any attentions from the locals, in fact most people showed an exceptional disinterest in me and my work. Except for very few occasions, Gambia presented itself as a very hospital place for my work to be developed (the classic in camera look of the passersby was hardly ever an issue).
The hardest location became the dump site. Thanks to some contacts in the administration I was able to get in touch with the high level officers at the site. Sadly this only made things more complicated. Only after attempting at entering the site 5 times, I was finally able to get some ‘unofficial’ permission.
Meanwhile the workers in situ (called ‘the scavengers’) embraced our project and, after some initial reservations, helped us in producing the single-shot sequence of M. dumping the rubbish with Shamu.
The final single-shot sequence in the film happened under the worst rain recorded in the past 25 years in the region. The morning after nothing was left of the building where the scene was made. Several donkeys in the area died drowning while the locals found their homes completely flooded. Sadly, no sign of help from the government was noticeable the following days.
This project was inspired by the following literature works:
Dino Campana, Canti Orfici (1914)
A spiritual and mystical voyage undertaken by Campana in search of his concept of an eternal moment (l'eterno presente) outside of normal space-time in which everything and everywhere exists simultaneously.
Benjamine Fondane, Le mal des fantômes (1942)
Where is expressed the sense of revolt and the taste for life mixed with the sense of death, the author position himself as a ghost.
Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (1843)
Please see above
Joë Bousquet, La Connaissance du soir (1918)
Where it is explored the conception of a complete "poetics" that should overflow onto everything, embody life itself, and bring together aesthetics and metaphysics, morality and mysticism
And the following Gambian poets and writers:
Tijan M. Sallah
Mariama Khan (Futa Toro)
Bala S.K. Saho
Thomas De Hartmann, Essene Hymn, The Music of Gurdjieff (1989)
The music on this album is the result of a collaboration between George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, a Greek-Armenian spiritual teacher (1877–1949) and Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann (1885–1956).
Gurdjieff worked intensively with de Hartmann from 1923–1927 to compose a large body of sacred music: This was music that he remembered from his years of searching for knowledge in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and other sources. While Gurdjieff hummed a melody and tapped the rhythm, de Hartmann was able to grasp the spirit and put it into Western notation. In this way some 300 works were composed.
The original tapes containing these tracks were recorded in the 1950s under informal circumstances with rudimentary equipment, never intended to be heard by the public. As for the instrumentation, the performance is stripped down to nothing more than a single piano (played by de Hartmann) where de Hartmann uses the negative space between notes to revel in resonance, in turn capturing remarkable depth and meaning.
The colours in MORIAH were essential in composing the frame of each scene. The streets of Serekunda are made of desaturated spaces with random tonalities produced by self-made houses and shops.
Of great importance was in this respect the work of Jane Evelyn Atwood, specifically that of her travels in Haiti (2008, Actes Sud, Arles, France). The warm yet colourful compositions are defined by a specific selective ratio between light and shadows, reinforcing the strength of her subject within a larger environment.
Images above ©Jane Evelyn Atwood