Our protagonist bemoans: “The ‘what if’s are fucking exhausting”. Studying identity and its relation to our journeys through space and time, Dammi is all about the ‘what if’s of life. In other words: the crossroads that define our sense of self. As demonstrated in these mere 16 minutes, few leading men can pull off the conflict that arises from such an exploration better than Ahmed.
Riz Ahmed’s character is effectively unnamed, but he mentions in a voiceover that he used to be called Mounir and we see him introduce himself as Mounir when he returns to Paris. Incidentally, that’s the director’s middle name (Yann Mounir Demange). We will refer to his character as Mounir in this review.
We find ourselves in Paris, among the French-Algerian community to which Mounir’s father belongs. But Mounir is neither French nor Algerian, he isn’t even called Mounir anymore – that’s a name and identity his family left “buried here in Paris” when he left for England as a child. What he does know is that he is a Londoner. Yet here he is, seen stalking the streets of the French capital at night, in search of roots, or something resembling them.
Both the Franco-Algerian director and the British-Pakistani actor grew up in London.
It’s little surprise that this film’s world premiere was accompanied by the presentation of the Excellence Award Davide Campari to Ahmed, whose career has been defined by roles such as this. From Four Lions (Chris Morris, 2010) and Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014) to his star turn as Naz in TV drama The Night Of (2016), the British actor has demonstrated a deft touch when it comes to conflicted, imperfect protagonists. His visceral acting style, harking back to the ‘angry young men’ of the British New Wave, is all the more intense in Dammi due to the short runtime and close proximity that director Yann Demange keeps the camera to his star. This is an uncomfortably intimate portrait of a man on the edge.
Demange is best known for ’71 (2014) and White Boy Rick (2018), but Dammi will surprise viewers familiar with those works. In this film, his camera shakes, sways and, at one point, falls to the ground. Few shots last more than a couple of seconds, as we struggle to put together the pieces of Mounir’s identity. He is fixated on the past and haunted by the idea of determinism, like his story already has an ending that he cannot avoid. Alongside Demange’s cinematography, a number of dreamlike sequences create a disorientating effect as Mounir’s understanding of his past and his surroundings unravels, and our position in space and time becomes unclear.
Ahmed has worked on plenty of big-budget franchise movies, but it seems he always feels at home in this less glamourous world of clashing identities and cultural grey areas. Demange, on the other hand, is set to make his mega-budget debut with Marvel Studios’ Blade in 2025. I’m not going to get my hopes up about a similarly experimental work joining the ranks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but if his next feature has half the boldness of this magnificent short, it will be some upgrade on the usual superhero slop. Let’s hope that as soon as he’s done with that project, the French auteur returns to give us a more generous helping of the murky world he’s created in Dammi.
Dammi premiered at the 76th Locarno Film Festival as part of the Opening Ceremony, and the Excellence Award Davide Campari to Riz Ahmed.