A Milestone from an Exile on the Front Line

in 67th Cannes Film Festival

by Jean-Michel Frodon

For most of those who have seen it, Silver the Water directed by Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, has been the most powerful film presented in Cannes although it wasn’t part of any competition, and it did not get any award. Its presence in the Festival might have been considered a sort of politically correct tribute to what is happening in the real world during the Festival. Until one sees Silver the Water.

In May 2011, when an uprising overwhelmed Syria, Ossama Mohammed left Damascus. He flew to Cannes, to introduce a short film, The Teenager and the Boot, and to bear witness to the Bashar Al-Assad’s terror against its people, a then unarmed population demonstrating for the end of decades of dreadful oppression.

Ossama Mohammad never went back to Syria. From Paris, where he settled in exile, he initiated another form of filmmaking, based on images and sounds he’d brought with him, YouTube posts and later exchanges of texts and images with a young woman director surviving in the besieged city of Homs. Her first name is Simav, which means “Silver Water” in Kurdish. Most of the second part of the film is composed with images she shot, and with their chat online.

Silver the Water springs out from images, most of time shot with a DV camera or a mobile phone, from the words of peole from Derra and Homs, from the discussions between Mohammad and people he met in Syria, as well from the voice over in Paris, from where he shoots small visual counterpoints to the tsunami of images coming from “over there”. A tsunami of terror, blood and pain. A never seen before Tsunami, though so many images, and similar ones are available online. The difference does not come from quantity or even continuity, as opposed to the split of YouTube or TV news, it comes from the way they are watched by a film maker.

From all of this, he builds meanings — not one meaning but a plurality, including totally antagonist ones, related to the visions, strategies, and feelings of those who made and sent them. Among them are the Al-Assad’s thugs, who make an extensive use of recorded images with Iphones in torture rooms, in order to intimidate their enemies — and eventually to express their enjoyment of beating and humiliating others.

Silver the Water is probably the first cinema work, which takes seriously the potential use of YouTube images — after DePalma’s Redacted, but DePalma made the YouTube-like images, whereas Mohammad uses the existing ones. In this sense, the film Ossama Mohammed made with his co-director from afar, the incredibly courageous and thoughtful Wiam Simav Bedirxan not only bares a unique testimony to what is going on now in Syria but is a milestone in the history of cinéma — not just the history of militant cinéma, or documentrary cinema, but any kind of cinema.

Edited by Richard Mowe