Early in October this year, 59 ancient coffins buried for more than 2,600 years were unearthed in Egypt, setting the internet on fire with mummy-jokes. The idea of opening ancient coffins housing mummified ancestors didn’t seem ideal, especially in a year that beheld numerous natural and manmade catastrophes. Obviously, the memes and jokes emerged from the depiction of the concept of mummies in pop-culture, including several horror films and the popular American film franchise, The Mummy. The film series overtly fictionalizes mummies as supernatural evil forces, following the havoc they wreak when emancipated into the world.
Secrets of Saqqara Tomb, on the other hand, cleanses the exotically dramatized picture of Egypt’s most popular symbol – pyramid – which mainstream films have painted. The documentary follows the excavation efforts at a 4,400-year-old tomb found in the Saqqara pyramid complex in November 2018, marking Egypt’s most significant discovery in nearly half a dozen decades. The mysterious discovery makes the archaeologists inquisitive, leaving their curious minds with a plethora of questions about history. As an idea, it feels like just another article in the global news section of the newspaper or a link with an interesting thumbnail in your newsfeed that you’ll easily scroll past after skimming the title. The subject matter is hardly enthralling to someone who is neither archeology- nor history-enthusiast yet, the documentary makes up for an intriguing viewing experience, primarily backed by the treasure-hunt mood it creates and sustains through the runtime.
Setting the stakes high early on, it is revealed that the budget of the exploration is exhausting and the team has to dig something of utmost significance under a tight timeframe in order to gain the financial support of the government and keep the excavation going on. On this premise, there is a continual need for something extraordinary to happen, and when they do dig something new, we get a sense that the team is inching one step at a time towards their goal as the clock tickles in the background.
If you remember watching History TV, Discovery, and Nat Geo in the early 2010s, it is highly likely that you came across multiple TV specials on Dwaraka by the names The Lost City of Dwaraka and The Sunken City of Dwaraka exploring the ancient history and current whereabouts of Dwaraka. I remember watching these documentaries and subsequently flaunting the new-found history knowledge among school-mates the next day. Those documentaries, though, only amplified and represented theories and history, never to leave a lasting impact. However, Secrets of Saqqara Tomb relies as much on the days of yore as it does on the present-day, bestowing a story in which both the history and present hold equal gravitas.
On a level, the film is a thriller with characters trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, literally. By the same token, it also acts as a window into Egyptian culture, elucidating the significance of the tombs through the words and experiences of archeologists, historians, and contract labourers at the excavation site, making it easily accessible for culturally remote viewers, like myself. It’s beautifully shot with sweeping visuals of the desert and portraits of wall sculptures making me wish we’d seen in on a bigger screen. The beauty, however, hegemonizes the context in the first 30 minutes, and one cannot help but wonder whether it’ll take the tried and tested route of ‘splendidly shot yet emotionally shallow’ travel documentaries we have acclimatized to watching on television over the years.
Filmmaker James Tovell and editor Michael Rolt weave the modern cultural context around the discovery, giving equal importance to ‘what is this is tomb about?’ and ‘why is it so important for the people involved in it?’. Both the answers are in stark contrast with each other. The former answers history and the latter emphasizes the present culture. In a way, the whole film is about contradiction and similitude between the past and the present, and even the shot selection bolsters in stressing this point.
For instance, in a smartly constructed sequence, archeologists find a mass grave of mummified cats, and their preserved remains are sent to the lab for further examination. As historians expound on the significance of cats in their culture and how they were worshipped in ancient times, the visuals focus on street-cats of modern-day Egypt, going by their chores. It’s interesting on a level to learn that cats, which held a potent cultural and religious thousands of years ago, have not remained the same. Cats are used as an object to juxtapose ancient and modern times, culture, and beliefs. Moreover, the sequence is cute because, well: it has cats.
There are multiple instances that abridge the passage of time. Mustafa, the foreman of the Saqqara excavation site shares that his family worked in excavation activities for generations; ancient language and symbols carved on the tomb 4,440 years ago reflect in present-day agricultural activities; a digger working at the tomb has his son by his side, telling us that this the family tradition is likely to continue for the generations to come; an ariel shot presents the coexistence of a concrete city and desert abutting it, with the road to the desert equally bifurcating the divergent landscapes. These thin layers set Secrets of Saqqara Tomb apart from the plethora of travel and culture documentaries.
The film, although emotionally distant to an extent, succeeds in making multiple points pertaining to both history and the present, making it an engaging watch. Also, it acts as an enchanting introductory chapter in Egyptology, definitely more accurate than Tutenstein.
Secrets of Saqqara Tomb is streaming on Netflix worlwide.
Watch the trailer of the documentary: