Sherief Elkatsha captures the harmonious sound of The Nile Project, a musical collaborative of 11 African countries
Dir: Sherief Elkatsha. Egypt/US. 2022. 99mins
Egypt’s Sherief Elkatsha has assembled a wholly entertaining, and often uplifting, documentary about the musical collective The Nile Project – a collaborative that combines the sounds of the 11 African countries which touch the iconic river – on a small-venue tour of the United States, cataloguing all the ups and downs such an ambitious undertaking might be expected to experience. Far From The Nile follows along the lines of similar past hits including The Buena Vista Social Club, but there’s a little bit more to the human and ecological narrative here, and a little bit less smoothness to the finished result.
The project is about finding a common ground above all else, and watching the results flow is exhilarating
With the right assistance and a sharper edit, Far From The Nile, which premiered at the Cairo Film Festival, could prove a bona fide hit on the festival circuit, once it works out how to visually identify itself, its locations, its participants and their instruments, and truly educate as well as entertain. Sonically, it’s wholly seductive, not just showing the end results, but watching how members of these disparate cultures painstakingly figure out a common sound despite considerable linguistic and emotional challenges. The project, which promotes a political understanding as much as music, and the musicians themselves stand to benefit enormously from the resulting exposure.
Elkatsha’s film is a one-man-show (he produces, edits, directs) and, given those constraints, is a noteworthy achievement. The Nile Project, as we are briefly told, was started by Egyptian musicologist Mina Girgis in 2011, although there’s no clear sense as to how it was/is funded. Its goal, in the face of environmental erosion, is to unite the (often-warring) peoples who surround the great river through sound. Once a year, some 35 musicians come together to create harmony and, of these, 11 go on a 3.5 month tour of the United States, with venues ranging from school gyms to town halls and larger concert venues. (This, incidentally, is information gleaned with some difficulty from across the entire film. Without it, audiences go on a tour with a collective of out-sized personalities with no appreciable end in sight and not a great sense of how they relate to each other.)
By necessity of funding, presumably, the film is anchored visually in Cairo, from whence the tour sets forth. (There’s brief footage from South Sudan later.) Elkatsha’s technical limitations are quickly overshadowed by the electric nature of the personalities on the tour bus, and the magnificent music they make together. The 11 countries — viewers will surely need to hit the internet for a list – range from Kenya (drummer Kasiva Mutua) to Eritrea (kraar player Ibrahim Fanous), Sudan (vocalist Asia Madani.) Ethiopia (Selamnesh Zemene) and the Egyptian force of nature that is Adel Mekha, Nubian percussionist and vocalist. English is only vaguely a common language, and misunderstandings are rife – but the project is about finding a common ground above all else, and watching the results flow is exhilarating for the musicians, concert audiences, and viewers alike.
It’s not just musical entertainment either — although audiences will be happy just to receive that. These Africans on the loose in America are a funny bunch. Girgis, who is always driving the collaboration, reveals that the two things that can kick off tension amongst the artists are being late for rehearsals and endless smoking breaks. We watch both happen, with diminishing results. Shopping in a giant supermarket reveals the wonders of enormous American fruit and vegetables — later dismissed as tasteless — and white chicken (where is the black chicken?, they wonder). Bigamy is discussed. The charming, yet fiercely spirited Mutua (it’s unusual to have a female drummer in Kenya) talks about feminism, her hair problems, and how to achieve a perfect eyeliner flick (with sellotape).
This is undoubtedly a tough tour, with musicians crammed into hotel rooms to rehearse, hauling their own equipment around, driving across the US for hours on end before immediate sound checks and performances. By the end, they’re exhausted, and annoyed with each other. They idea that there is no ‘my song’ but group numbers can be tricky. Yet they persist. And the fruits of their labours can still bring them alive: the tingling sensation when they break through on stage and in person, when the idea that they can overcome political and cultural differences is brought to physical light and the camera is there to capture it.
Production companies: Katsha Films
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Producer: Sherief Elkatsha, Christopher McElroen
Cinematography: Sherief Elkatsha
Editing: Sherief Elkatsha, Pierre Haberer
Music: The Musicians of the Nile Project