Beyond Form: Syria - Outlooks to Hell

in 29th Fribourg International Film Festival

by Dieter Wieczorek

After the 2014 Fribourg Interntional Film Festival’s focus on Iran, which has successfully been exported to other international festivals, the 2015 edition offered an equally explosive subject, Syria, as one of its thematic sections. The public could find here the most significant works of the last several years, completed by the historical key work Everyday Life in a Syrian Village (Al hayatt al yawmiyah fi quariah suriyah), by Omar Amiralay, from 1976, which already points out tensions between the rural population and the government.

Talal Derki’s The Return to Homs (Al Awda ila Homs, Syria/Germany, 2013) is a documentary which shows in the most exemplary way the process of disillusion from the first moment of an outbreak of euphoric rebellion, still marked by pacifistic tendencies against the Assad regime, up to a more and more militarized phase, leading finally to the complete destruction of living spaces. In one of the most painful scenes we see a young rebel, the former national goalkeeper, who even after having lost many of his friends and fellow combatants, lying seriously injured on a improvised sickbed, is begging his companions not to give up the fight, otherwise all the blood would have been spilled in vain. Derki follows a small group of resistance fighters who, after having successfully escaped from Homs, decided to go back to Hell to assist the still living families there. He shows a war of total destruction without limits and hesitations from the perspective of the former idealists. He himself is part of this group, taking his images from the frontline in close-ups.

The Immortal Sergeant (Al-Rakib Al-Khaled, Lebanon, 2014), by Ziad Kalhoum, reflects on the increasing destructivity and disorientation by capturing the dialogues of a team working on a feature film even during the beginning war. The director, himself reservist and on military duty, captured with his camcorder the team’s mostly oppositional and frightened voices during their turning operation, disturbed nearly every minute by the noise of tactical aircrafts bypassing the scene. His camera style, characterized by unmoored images and sometimes insignificant pans, makes the common disoriented state of mind also appreciable by its form.

Yassine Haj Saleh spent 16 years in Assad’s prisons and still insisted to stay in the country, convinced that only by remaining present is there any chance of affecting change. But facing the double risk of the Regime’s military attacks and the advancements of Islamist extremists, he was finally forced to accept an arduous flight through deserted lands and over risky frontiers in the direction of Istanbul. More oriented on the personal destiny of this historical personality, Ziad Hosmi and Mohammad Ali Atassi’s film Our Terrible Country (Baladna Alraheeb, Syria/Lebanon, 2014) concentrates on psychical and physical borderline situations, most notably those traversed by Saleh, who even after having endured torture could not tolerate the idea of having left his wife left behind. But the film also examines the fears and troubles of those who remain in the war zone and the inner problems of Saleh’s fellow traveller, a young photographer who left his family to help Saleh on this difficult journey. Hosmi and Atassi witness the escalating violence grow over all hopes of intellectual or political resistance. The film captures events in close-ups—an overlooking panorama isn’t possible any more.

Fighting, leaving behind all normal life context, memories and relations, is also the theme of Liwaa Yazji’s documentary Haunted (Maskoon, Germany/Syria/Lebanon, 2014). What to do, when your livingroom is transformed into a ruin? Even the idea of flight, only possible in the direction of Golan Heights, to cross the Israeli border, is emotionally hard to bear. Yazjir’s debut follows the perspectives of nine persons, their doubts and reflexions in front of a background of ongoing shootings.

Fribourg 2015 also integrated a contribution coming out of the ambience of the protected bourgeoisie surrounding the regime. The central figure here is a young Syrian woman suffering increasing doubts about her surroundings, who starts not only secretly composing protest songs, but also uploading them onto the internet. Soon she gets an icon of identification. Her simple but poetic texts are followed by all those still not dominated by an ideological mindset. Deira Salma und Rola Ladqani offer in Morning Fears, Night Chants (Sabahan Akhaff Masa’an Ughani, Syria, 2013) an inside look at an isolated, sensitive voice of reasoning and compassion, which takes into question the ongoing barbarism.

As an attempt to find form, words and adequate images to reflect the overwhelming animalistic cruelty—documented in repeated images of torture—we discover Ossama Mohammad’s and Wiam Bedirxan’s Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (France, Syria, 2014), which was already presented in Cannes last year. Mohammad provides a lot of anonymous raw materials, often without contextual information, such as place and time, which have been circulating on the internet. These spontaneous images, concentrated and made coherent by his montage, seem to him the right form to capture the collective human disaster. In the second part of this film the exiled, currently Paris-based filmmaker is contacted by Bedirxan, a young Kurdish woman who asks him which images he would seek out if he were still living in Homs. This woman has been living alone, separated from her family since 2011, in the perishing town. In voice-over we listen to the dialogue between these two different filmmakers, which is marked by a traumatic, poetic language. How we can talk to a person consecrated to death? Mohammad adds various materials to the soundtrack, often songs with isolated voices, as well as his own reflections on his problematic and ambivalent situation as a refugee between presence and absence, trying to find a way to capture the not-representable disaster with some form or structure. The anonymous YouTube sequences, the images taken under lifethreatening conditions by Bedirxan, and scenes from the Paris metro and Cannes Film Festival are placed in striking juxtaposition to reflect the abyss between uncompatible realities.

Syria may be the most visible victim of current geopolitics, isolated from any real help, even if such help would be possible; a country dying from inside, with a population smashed into a diaspora of millions, characterized by a slow and uninterrupted genocide. A film festival only can remember it. A responsible festival should remember it. Fribourg did it.

Edited by José Teodoro