Statues that tell a story: decoding images of an excavation in Khabur 

Ancient artefacts are moved from Syria to a Berlin museum in Nafis Fathollahzadeh’s film Khabur, screening as part of our Experimenta strand, and streaming on BFI Player.

Khabur (2023)

Khabur begins with a series of photographs seen through a magnifying glass. They are of Tell Halaf, an archaeological site in the valley of the Khabur River in north-eastern Syria. Taken to document the excavation led and financed by German diplomat, ancient historian and archaeologist Baron Max von Oppenheim from 1911 to 1913 and again in 1927 to 1929, these photographs form an ideological arm of the archaeological campaign. 

The film’s voiceover tells us “[t]his has been the fate of photography for a century, to fixate the tropes of otherness, to construct the binary patterns of division and exclusion that have been displayed on the museum’s walls, national archives and western mass media, where such division is reinforced and reinscribed.” 

These photographs serve as an expression of power over the land and its people that runs in parallel to the archeological “excision” and “alienation” of the Tell Halaf statues, which are brought to museums in Berlin. Using the magnifying glass, a tool associated with viewing photographic slides and a trope of detective investigation, filmmaker Nafis Fathollahzadeh foregrounds people and objects captured by the original image in wide shot. 

This visual foregrounding insists that we are attentive to what the photograph whispers quietly. We’re invited to notice, in the pose of a supervisor, the unbalanced relationship between the German expedition team and their employees. The film uses text to invert the perspective of the photographs, the register of their ‘discovery’. Known as the “rescued gods of Tell Halaf”, the statues voice their own experience of the excavation, narrating how “They are digging our room. Soon I will leave my room and my belongings forever.” 

Originally intended to document the excavation and catalogue the findings, the photographs become evidence of dispossession, revealing how the statues and the land were imposed upon, and how these are objects that experience displacement and alienation. The final section of the film shows the statues in the present day, housed in the Museum of the Near East in Berlin. The museum, like Oppenheim’s campaign before it, positions itself as protector and guardian, using the language of heroism. 

The statues tell us “27,0000 scattered pieces of the collection are restored, an act of rescue they call it.” Standing in front of a map of its origin, one statue cries “Khabur! The source of the spring! You have been the witness.” The friction between the language of heroism, and the use of witness, which infers a crime, offers an observation on how we read the past. Archival documents, which traditionally cast themselves as objective and factual, have been told and understood through literary modes. 

Earlier, the statues attested to the fact that “on the excavation site, time is divided into past and present”, but Khabur shows how this distinction is not hermetic. The past is alive in the present, and the present structures of power affect our understanding of the past. 

Khabur screens as part of The Land Is the Living Witness at the 67th BFI London Film Festival.

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