“Under the ashes burns the flame”: Apocalypse and environment in A Siege of Salt and Sand

Near the beginning of “A Siege of Salt and Sand”, we are introduced to the town of Kerkennah. It is observed by a local fisherman that the name is allegedly Roman in origin, bastardized over millennia from the name of a Carthaginian girl. I found this moment to be particularly striking. At one moment, it calls to mind both the tremendous change that this region of the world has seen, and the continued routines of life that have persisted across all that change. This, among other moments, gives the documentary an epic scope. It is less about the particular political issues of modern Tunisia than it is a broader narrative about the struggle for human civilization to endure during what are presented as apocalyptic changes.

The epigraph of the documentary goes:

“Slow down! Let not the spring deceive you, nor the serenity of the sky, nor the glow of the morning. For in the vast horizon lurks the power of darkness, the bombardment there of thunder, and the raging of winds. Beware! Under the ashes burns the flame, and he who sows the thorns harvest the wounds.”

This quote establishes these grand stakes of the documentary. Even though it is addressed to the “tyrants of the world”, in context, it is best read as a general admonishment to humanity. We take for granted that the Earth will be generally friendly to us, that the pleasant conditions in which our civilizations grew will endure forever. But “under the ashes burns the flame”. We live in those ashes, in the aftermath of billions of years of destruction which blew apart the world into the one that we found ourselves in, yet remain ignorant of the terrible power which we have been able to ignore, or at least minimize, especially in the recent past. It is a powerful sentiment. In thinking about the documentary, it is the moment that stands out the most, casting a dark shadow of doom over the events portrayed within.

However, this ends up being a somewhat broad way to interpret the climatic changes occurring in Tunisia. Indifference would a fair word to describe the relationship between humanity and nature as presented in the film. The encroachment of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the encroachment of the Sahara, are seen as somewhat unguided forces. Although climate change is referenced frequently, it is rarely attributed to the actions of individuals. For that matter, depleted resources are also not attached to the actions of individuals. This ends up weakening the interpretative power of the documentary. In attributing the “siege” under which the farmers and fishermen of Tunisia languish to “salt” and “sand”, it fails to account for many of the intentional decisions, both those local and those distant, which have led to these changes. Obviously, the causes and impacts of climate change, within and beyond MENA, are too grand to account for in a forty-five-minute documentary. However, it could have taken greater steps to articulate what policy issues are being considered. Substantive political debates were broadly sidelined. (This seems to go against the impression that many viewers had, given a cursory look at the documentary’s presence online, but I am confident in that recollection).

Furthermore, I feel that the documentary works if you have prior exposure to the political-environmental issues of the region but would be less impactful without that context. There is not a great deal of time spent on establishing the conditions of the various communities examined in the film, (at least, in terms of explaining what their industries are like, why they exist in relative precarity beyond the environmental issues, and so on). For a more casual audience, A Siege of Salt and Sand might run the risk of glossing over the particularities of life in Tunisia and the Maghreb. Such viewers might come away with an emotional understanding of the issues of life in the developing world under climate change, but not be able to distinguish the region further than that.

That being said, the documentary is a moving and powerful reflection on the status of Tunisians affected by climate change, expressing the effects sea level rise and desertification is having on those populations. The scenes of the desert, particularly, are grim, conveying the idea that the vast Sahara is simply consuming long-standing populations in a slow march against civilization. The coastal scenes, by contrast, betray an emotion which is somewhat harder to describe. I think it is best expressed as loss, or even betrayal. The ocean has sustained these communities for thousands of years but is now one of the greatest threats to their survival. When Kerkennah is being introduced, there are long, varied shots of the sea. These shots are not of violence and destruction but the sea as it is normally. That, in my mind, is more effective. In its completely natural state, slowly crawling up the coastline year-by-year, the sea poses as inevitable a destruction as any hurricane or earthquake. That is a stark thing to think. A Siege of Salt and Sands burns such an impression onto its viewers, and leaves a mark for a long time after viewing.






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