Ancient Near East in films – from earliest cinematic experiences to the Poor Man of Nippur

The summary of AMME Seminar on ‘Ancient Near East in Cinema´.

This autumn’s final AMME seminar was held on December 15th with the topic of Ancient Near East in Cinema. Dr. Jason Silverman (University of Helsinki) and Dr. Martin Worthington (Trinity College, Dublin) led us to the world of cinematic experiences and gave us two intriguing presentations on how the ancient world is represented in early and modern films, how it can be represented and what are the challenges of making ANE themed films.

Dr. Jason Silverman started the afternoon by discussing the history of ANE themed films and filmmakers. The ancient Near East has been the interest of filmmakers since the beginning of cinema. The early filmmakers were especially inspired by the Bible and the Classical world, and the representations were derived from those traditions. ANE themed films were largely a 20th century thing. After the world wars Hollywood got the upper hand having more opportunities, tools, and funding to make films. Unfortunately, many of the films have been destroyed by fire because the early depositories were easily flammable.

Dr. Silverman discussed and showed glimpses of some of the old black and white ANE inspired films from different countries, for example the famous silent film Intolerance directed by D. W. Griffit in 1916. Other popular themes of the era were the ancient Egypt, Akhenaten and the story of Anthony and Cleopatra. Human sacrifices were also typical scenes. Films are often related to orientalism and stereotypes. Dr. Silverman addressed some the issues such as the ever-decreasing religious audience for ANE and Bible themed films and their high production costs. The ancient world is often a background for something else and not a filmmaker’s interest itself.

Dr. Silverman also spoke about teaching and understanding ANE themed movies and his upcoming course Reception of the Ancient Near East in film in spring semester.

Afternoon’s second speaker Dr.  Martin Worthington shared his thoughts and experiences of the filmmaking process and industry as well as the challenges of turning ancient text into a visual story and bringing the once spoken languages alive again. The director of the first film in Babylonian language, The Poor Man of Nippur (available on YouTube) also spoke about the planning of his next film project Dumuzi’s Dream. Dr. Worthington took part in one of the recent adaptations of ANE themed movies by being a language expert in the Marvel Studios Eternals (2021). Dr. Worthington pointed out that when filmmakers want ancient, they choose Mesopotamia because it is considered being ultra-ancient reaching further away in history and in the edge of peoples understanding of the past civilizations.

Dr. Worthington discussed the questions and difficulties of making texts into films. Dramatization requires a lot of simplifications, interpretations, and decisions what is possible to do, what the texts are saying and how to add something that is not there. Dr. Worthington described different ways to engage with the material, for example filmmakers can try to be faithful to the story or just take some elements from them. Often, filmmaking requires adapting the story for a modern audience, because the ancient references are not widely understood anymore. Another challenge is to create a visually satisfying scene and catch the right atmosphere. What did ancient Mesopotamia look like? How people spoke, what kind of gestures they had and how they dressed in an ordinary daily life? The texts can be interpreted together with for example archaeological information, but recreating ancient world is very hard. Dr. Worthington gave us an example of this by speaking how difficult it is to visualize the supernatural beings such as the demons. Texts don’t often describe their physical form and we know more about their behaviour and actions than appearance. Mesopotamians did this intentionally, for them it was obvious than no one knew what supernational things look liked and people were careful of how to present them. Dr. Worthington asked the question of what Mesopotamians would think about us making the unseen visible. Do we cross lines and what kind of alternative options there is to present them?

Both speakers gave us a warm afternoon with an interesting topic of the Ancient Near East in cinema. Join us again in spring 2023 for new AMME seminars and topics!