Acting Out Revenge—Babylonian Style

The Poor Man of Nippur dramatizes an ancient tale

Revenge, deception, intrigue—The Poor Man of Nippur has it all.

In June 2017, Dr. Martin Worthington of Cambridge University and students from his Assyriology class dramatized this ancient Babylonian story and captured it on film. Lasting about 20 minutes, their film was officially launched and made accessible to the public in November 2018. The tale is set in Nippur, a city in southern Iraq, during the second millennium B.C.E. The script itself follows a 160-line poem found on a tablet at Sultantepe, Turkey, and dated to 701 B.C.E.

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Photo: Courtesy of Martin Worthington

The plot is fairly straightforward: The main character, Gimil-Ninurta, who is very poor and called a “truly wretched man,” brings a goat (his last possession) to the mayor of Nippur with the hope that the mayor will prepare a feast with the goat. The mayor does—but he gives the poor man only the gristle and bone before unceremoniously throwing him from his house. Gimil-Ninurta vows revenge as he leaves. The rest of the film follows Gimil-Ninurta’s revenge plan, where he pays back the mayor’s wrong threefold.

With a cast of 18 (plus the goat), the Cambridge team performed this ancient story entirely in Babylonian. Subtitles are available in 16 languages for those of us not fluent in the ancient language. It was filmed in various locations, including Cambridge’s campus, the British Museum, and Flag Fen Archaeology Park.

To see how Gimil-Ninurta executes his revenge, you can view their film at www.arch.cam.ac.uk/about-us/mesopotamia/mesopotamian-films.

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Photo: Courtesy of Martin Worthington

I had a chance to interview Martin Worthington about the film’s inspiration and process of creation. See below for the interview in full in a Bible History Daily exclusive.
 


 
From Babylon to Baghdad: Ancient Iraq and the Modern West examines the relationship between ancient Iraq and the origins of modern Western society. This free eBook details some of the ways in which ancient Near Eastern civilizations have impressed themselves on Western culture and chronicles the present-day fight to preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage.
 


 
Megan Sauter (BAR): Who had the brilliant idea to dramatize this ancient story?

Martin Worthington: Cambridge Assyriology is lucky year in, year out, to have some wonderfully clever and creative students, and the initial spark came from them. We were reading The Poor Man of Nippur in class, as part of a course in Akkadian (i.e., Babylonian), and at the end of the session one of the students commented that it would be “fun to dramatize it.” Little did any of us suspect the consequences …

The idea sat at the back of my mind until a couple of months later, when I was involved in the dramatization of an ancient Greek work led by Patrick Boyde, Emeritus Professor of Italian in St John’s (my college). Watching all these people declaim a dead language, I felt a pang of what you might call “Assyriologist’s jealousy” and thought how nice it would be if we could do something similar!

From here, via the realization that a film would be easier than a play in the sense that we could have as many “takes” as we liked, grew a pipe dream … which might forever have remained such, except that I mentioned it to Assyriologist and Classicist Kathryn Stevens, now at Durham but then a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity College in Cambridge. Kathryn was the first to see that a film could actually be made to happen and indeed secured the first dollop of funding. Once the ball (and later the camera) got rolling, we realized that the film united may different purposes, some for us and some for wider audiences.

On one level, I saw the project as something that could bring the Mesopotamian community in my university together and reward the students for all their hard work with a fun experience. But also, as a teacher of ancient Mesopotamian languages, I am very keen that people should learn them as languages. I don’t mean they should hold conversations in them (though I am toying with the idea of running Settlers of Catan in Babylonian), but at least they should speak the words aloud and allow them to exist in their minds as real sentences, with intonation and meaning—not just an algorithm of morphology and syntax. A film was, of course, perfect for this!

With regard to the wider world, I have often had the sense that most people’s perception of Mesopotamia tends to be that of a civilization aloof from normal humanity: those stately winged bulls, immobile as they stare into eternity; those wedge-packed inscriptions, so much harder on the eye, so much less human-looking than (say) hieroglyphs; those selfish little cylinder-seals, whose decorations can only be apprehended when you roll them out; and, in literature, most people don’t get beyond the Epic of Gilgamesh, which what with gods and kings hardly features normal people at all. It’s easy to forget that ancient Mesopotamia was occupied by people just like us, who used their languages to chat with neighbors, entertain friends, whisper confidences, teach cooking, and shop at the market. As a comic folktale, lowbrow in content (though highbrow in literary form), The Poor Man of Nippur was perfect for giving the general public a different, more lively, human, and lighthearted picture of what went on between the two rivers.

MS: What was the most challenging part of dramatizing it?

Worthington: With shooting in multiple locations, costumes, and everything else, there was a huge logistical dimension. Here we had huge support from Ph.D. students Peerapat Ouysook and Silvia Ferreri, without whose energy and attention to detail the project would simply not have happened.

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Photo: Courtesy of Martin Worthington

The participation of Florence the Goat was one of the most colorful details, and she was very well behaved. It was too good to be true that the first time Gimil-Ninurta said, “Suppose I slaughter the goat,” she ran for her life, as if on cue.

From an artistic perspective, a major issue was the comic portrayal of violence. It’s all very well for the story to say “he beat him black and blue” (or words to that effect), but if we actually showed that visually, it would have been extremely hard to get right. You see this very clearly with the Asterix comics (which I adore): One of the characters, Obelix, is often drawn beating up Roman legionaries, but in a delightfully good-natured and nonviolent way. You never see Obelix’s fist make contact with them, only the aftereffect of the legionary sailing up into the air, minus his sandals, and looking more annoyed than hurt. When you see the same story as a cartoon, it’s just a large man hitting smaller men. To my mind the effect is completely different—and not at all funny. So we didn’t want to show Gimil-Ninurta to be hitting the mayor. We thought through several possible solutions (a shadow fight, an animation) and in the end decided on the cats.

Another artistic thought point was what to do about the poetic structure: Most lines in the story fall naturally into two halves (not “meter” in the European sense, but something not a million miles away). Should we emphasize this or prioritize “natural delivery”? In the end, partly inspired by Patrick Boyde’s experiments with Greek, we plumped for natural delivery.

MS: What was your favorite part of dramatizing The Poor Man of Nippur?

Worthington: It was hugely fun—the whole experience constituted some of the most stressful but also most enjoyable weeks of my life!

One of the highlights was that, at every door we knocked on, we were met with the most amazing goodwill: People gave us permissions to film and all sorts of other help with a readiness that was constantly dizzying. For example, the translators of the subtitles worked for free! In the same vein, the crew and cast were extraordinarily good-humored, putting up with all sorts of hitches without complaint.
 


 
From Babylon to Baghdad: Ancient Iraq and the Modern West examines the relationship between ancient Iraq and the origins of modern Western society. This free eBook details some of the ways in which ancient Near Eastern civilizations have impressed themselves on Western culture and chronicles the present-day fight to preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage.
 


 
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Photo: Courtesy of Martin Worthington

MS: How long did the participants have to practice to master their Babylonian lines?

Worthington: From the start, it was policy that the three main speaking roles should go to the three students who had read the story in class. This made everything much quicker, as they were already so familiar with the story.

MS: Who was responsible for the great filmography, editing, and sound track?

Worthington: All of these were handled by competent professionals. The footage was shot by JH Film and Anna Kyriazidou, and sound-processed by David Erwood. The editing was undertaken by Rachel Tookey (in consultation with myself).

The soundtrack was specially composed by Stef Conner, who had already released an album in Babylonian, The Flood. It was recorded by musician colleagues and herself, and the post-recording sound work was done by Christopher McDonnell.

MS: What’s next? Do you have plans to dramatize any other Mesopotamian texts?

Worthington: We are very pleased with how The Poor Man has been received. We got lucky with media interest, and at the time of writing (January 2019) it’s been viewed almost 50,000 times (with 1,300 YouTube “likes” vs. eight “dislikes”). As regards a “repeat” of the venture, this is all extremely encouraging. Whether a repeat actually happens will partly depend on funding and partly on having the right critical mass of people.

Meanwhile, after the film, we released a video about Assyriology as a university subject, and we will be releasing documentaries—one about the making of The Poor Man—during 2019.

There seems to be something of a Zeitgeist for “Mesopotamia and film”! A few weeks ahead of the launch of The Poor Man, the University of Bern released a film in Sumerian!

MS: Who was responsible for the beautiful costumes and props? How closely did the costumes adhere to what we know about Mesopotamian clothing?

Worthington: The costumes were hired from the National Theatre, and the props came from a variety of sources (from the same National Theatre to friends of ours).

From the start, we made a decision not to try to imitate original Mesopotamian styles. This would have added hugely in terms of time and expense, and the locations were perforce going to be modern ones. The story’s being comical reassured us when we were compelled to take liberties, and we trusted the audience would forgive us.

MS: How large was your cast?

Worthington: The cast (all of whom were volunteers) comprised 18 people plus the goat. The crew comprised 22 people, many of whom were volunteers.

MS: You mentioned volunteers. What about the money side of things?

Worthington: The project was quirky, but it also had educational value, so thanks to the farsightedness of various educational bodies we were able to piece together monies in sums that went from £1000 to £200, with most being in the middle. Something I would not have anticipated, but which became clear in the final accounts, is that the most expensive part of production was transport!

MS: Thank you for taking time to share the details of your project with Bible History Daily. What an exciting venture! I am looking forward to seeing the documentary about the making of this film later this year, and I sincerely hope you and your students decide to dramatize another ancient text.

Posted in News, The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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