Tales of Terror

in 59th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Peter Kremski

The terrors of war left their mark on this year’s International Leipzig Film Festival. The War Show, a film by Andreas Dalsgaard and Syrian video documentarist Obaidah Zytoon, chronicles the fatal developments in Zytoon’s country: from the optimism of revolution to the brutality of civil war, and from high hopes to disaster. This film is a very subjective account of the filmmaker’s own political activism and that of her friends, who joined together in a passionate struggle for political and social renewal.

The film starts in March 2011, full of joy and energy, and ends in the dreadful terror of the present day. The group of friends has been smashed to pieces; some are dead, some have disappeared, others sought refuge in exile. From 400 hours of materials, Obaidah Zytoon shapes, with the help of her Danish co-director Andreas Dalsgaard, the story of this ill-fated movement. The film follows her personal journey from boundless enthusiasm to the loss of all illusions. What started as a Syrian video-diary has become a film produced from her Danish exile.

Another film about the terror of war was A157 by Iranian filmmaker Behrouz Nouranipour. A157 depicts the terror brought upon the Yesidi Kurds by the IS-militia in Northern Iraq. The title refers to a tent number in a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border. This tent is the tiny living place of three young girls, who are 11, 13 and 15 years old; two of them are sisters. All three are pregnant after having been raped. One of them will commit suicide.

The film stays close to them. We look into the girls’ faces and listen to what they have to say. They tell about their destroyed souls, their loss of honour and home, the death of their families, the ethnic suppression and the genocide by the IS-militia. War, as they experienced it, is a violent game played by men and boys with women and girls as their victims. They live in fear of men and boys from now on, and forever.

A further film investigating the terrors of war was Heidi Specogna’s epic documentary Cahier Africain. In one scene, we observe a group of small girls playing in the street. It is a wedding game they play. No boy is invited to play with them. “We don’t like boys,” one of the girls says, “because boys are proud and brutal.” So they send them away.

This is a street scene from the PK12 neighbourhood, a refugee district on the outskirts of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Years ago, militias from the Congo invaded the CAR, plundering, raping, murdering, committing war crimes while roaming through the country. A Cahier Africain is just an exercise book used in schools, but it contains the testimonies of 300 Central African women and girls who have become victims of war crimes in that time.

Swiss filmmaker Heidi Specogna has chosen two young women from this “Cahier” as protagonists of her very emotional tale about the sorrows and the sufferings of women and children in Africa haunted by war. One is Amzine, a Muslim woman, raped by Congolese mercenaries when she was 20 years old. Now she lives with her daughter, her child from that rape, in disdain of men. The other woman is Arlette, a Christian girl, who was 5 years old when she was heavily wounded by a gunshot. These events happened in 2002, but the physical and emotional wounds of the past are not forgotten and can easily burst open again. Heidi Specogna follows the lives of her protagonists over several years, from 2011 until 2015. During this time, war and violence return: Muslim and Christian militias roam through the country, neither of them showing mercy with the civil population or with people belonging to another religion. Amzine and Arlette find themselves captured again in a vicious circle of violence. By now, Amzine is 33 years old and Arlette is 18.

Specogna’s Cahier Africain evokes the tragedy of a lost continent torn by terror and brutality. But nevertheless, a lot of love for the African continent can be felt in this picture. The beauty of Africa can always be seen. It shows in the landscape or in the community of the village scenes and above all, of course, in the extraordinary beauty of the women and girls threatened and victimized by war and violence. At the Leipzig Film Festival, two prizes were awarded to this film in recognition of its intense plea for humanity and its poetic shape.

Edited by Birgit Beumers