Feature Documentary Reviews

Architecture of Ra (2021) – 1.5 stars

Director: Kyle Weyburne

Writer: Kyle Weyburne

Running time: 1hr 15mins

There is an old joke that tells us writing about music is like dancing about architecture – but what if your subject is not only architecture, but dead architecture and you are trying to bring back to life via film? This is the challenge that confronts anyone trying to make a movie about archaeology and attempting to engage an audience with the belief systems of past human societies – the task is magnified when the subject is a society that existed many millennia ago.

In Architecture of Ra, Kyle Weyburne, a New Zealand filmmaker, and Egyptologist, takes on the challenge in an interesting and innovative way. Weyburne’s subject matter is the high status, monumental architecture of ancient Egypt. Weyburne’s contention, which drives the narrative, is that scholars have misread the purpose of the Pyramids and the great temples of Pharaonic Egypt as simple commemorative monuments to dead rulers when their actual purpose was to serve as solar calendars and portals for the sun god to bestow eternal life on those lucky Pharaohs.

Weyburne’s approach is to combine footage of himself in scholarly discourse taking us around the great sights of Egypt interspersed with some wonderful clips from vintage sci-fi movies – this works spectacularly well. Unfortunately, the director decided to add a third element – which takes up a large slice of the movie’s running time – shots of quotidian Cairo contemporary street life mixed with seemingly endless footage of Weyburne shopping for souvenirs in various tourist shopping malls. These scenes are so ill-judged and repellent that they make the movie almost unwatchable – it was only your reviewer’s IFL sense of duty that got us through to the final reel.

The scholarly discourse aspect is well achieved. Scott Lewis’s competent cinematography catches the breath-taking gigantism of the architecture and provides a stunning backdrop to Weyburne’s pedagogy. Weyburne, despite an unfortunate predilection for Nietzschean facial hair, proves to be an engaging and persuasive presenter. It is a tough job to explain succinctly the architecture’s form and function and the intricacies of what is known about ancient Egyptian belief systems, but Weyburne is up to the task.

I have one concern about the academic strand of the movie. Weyburne is a scholar – in the production notes we are given links to two academic papers by Weyburne published in fringe, but peer-reviewed, journals. As a scholar, I would have thought the director would have wanted to set their work within the overall framework of Egyptology as a body of knowledge. Instead, we are given no references as to the work of other academics – it is as though the assertions that Weyburne makes to us have sprung fully formed from the fertile brain of the genius presenter. Or, possibly, given the context, the revelations may have been a gift from Ra the sun-god. A little humility might have helped here along with an acknowledgement of the difficulties in imaginative understanding of how people in ancient societies may have thought about the realities of life and the mysteries of death.

The use of the vintage sci-fi footage is a delight – it works so well. The movies sampled have titles like Doomsday Machine – you get the picture. There is even an early offering for Coppola buffs out there with Francis Ford as co-director – Battle Beyond the Sun. The samples are smoothly edited into the lecture sequences, and they achieve their purpose – they illustrate how 20th century science viewed space and time and links this mind set to the scientific method of ancient Egyptian architects as they attempted to build a device to transform a tyrant into a god. Looking back from the 21st century, we catch how, as historical artefacts, the images have aged so quickly – to us they appear ancient in comparison to what comes across to us as the modernity of the pyramids and temples. Here, Weyburne has devised a fascinating concept that discombobulates the audience and gets us to think about how belief systems have changed over time – this almost redeems the movie.

But then we come to the disastrous footage of everyday life in contemporary Egypt. Weyburne shows an almost deranged faith in how interesting this will be to the audience. At one point, we are being given a lecture on foreshortening, and how a particular pyramid should be viewed, at the crucial moment as the camera pans up the face of the structure, the director chooses to edit in shots of themselves walking through a tourist bazaar. This is a bizarre decision with no rationale – it totally disrupts the scene’s narrative flow.

Worse still; there are three scenes that I found particularly reprehensible. Two are long distance camera shots that seem to be shot from a hotel balcony. In the first, we see an elderly man (possibly blind) with a stick perilously negotiating his way through fast moving streams of traffic to board a bus. The second shows a middle-aged woman picking three live chickens up and roughly manoeuvring them into a large shopping holdall. The final shot is the most rebarbative. We are out at the pyramids and see a line of horse-drawn tourist buggies waiting for customers. One of the horses is lame and in great distress – the driver, no doubt realising their earnings prospects for the day have vanished, in frustration, viciously whips the animal. The scene goes on for an age.

The feeling I had whilst watching was that I had been made to be a voyeur – wallowing in someone else’s misery. To what point? So that the director might add some exotic local colour? It seems to me unlikely that Weyburne asked the participants’ permission to include the footage – if this is the case, it is worth having a hard look at the ethics of documentary film making.

The sheer oddity of the extensive footage where Weyburne goes walkabout shopping in the tourist bazaars cannot be overstated. I am assuming that the scenes had been included to show the director’s rapport with Cairenes and a common touch. However, Weyburne speaks no Arabic and comes across as, frankly, a buffoon. The long, drawn-out scene where Weyburne is shown haggling with a stallholder over the purchase of a bunch of rusty keys (the price is less than a US dollar) is one of the most pointless and embarrassing pieces of cinema that I have watched in a long time.

All the while I was watching Weyburne’s jokey and privileged progress along the tourist trail, free to film and express themselves, I kept thinking of less fortunate young indy filmmakers. Cairenes live under a military dictatorship with a vicious and all-pervading security apparatus – freedom of expression is definitely not a thing.

I thought of Shady Hassan accused of making a satirical video of the current pharaoh Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Shady spent two years in jail, before dying there of ‘unknown medical causes’. And I thought of Sanaa Seif, director of The Square, imprisoned without trial since the spring of last year for the heinous crime of going to a police station to ask why her brother had been arrested. Sadly, Weyburne’s only take on the realities of Egyptian society is as a freak show to excite – there is no reference to life under a dictatorship. The authorities do get referenced in the credits – “filmed with the gracious permission of the Ministry of State for Antiquities”. Surely a plain “permission” would have sufficed. How about “with the gracious permission of Dr Goebbels”?    

The Architecture of Ra is such a frustrating film to score. If Weyburne had refrained from the ill-fated attempts at travelogue, I might have rated the work highly. My advice would be for him to go back to the cutting room and just keep the academic and sci-fi material and re-submit – because in those areas this footage has the makings of a very good movie indeed. More generally, though, I would urge a somewhat less bombastic and more collegiate approach to the construction of knowledge. In case he undertakes any further projects in Egypt, I would also recommend Weyburne take a short online course in post-colonial studies – and to read (or possibly re-read) Edward Said’s much critiqued but still vitally relevant study, Orientalism.

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