What is left behind?

in Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, Montréal 2021

by Victor Paz Morandeira

Leftovers in DAMASCUS DREAM directed by Emilie Ferri

Emilie Ferri’s first feature film Damascus Dream (Canada, 2021) was recently awarded with the FIPRESCI prize at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma Montréal. As the jurors Jérôme Michaud, Pedro Tavares and myself put it, it is “a rich documentary that deals with the notion of identity using a participatory approach with a small Syrian community in Quebec Province. By doing so, it manages to capture in a much broader sense the feeling of displacement all refugees can experience.” It is rich because it blends different tools of the documentary tradition to create a very personal and powerful essay that, at the same time, feels universal.

It begins by showing us some recordings in Hi-8 tapes that are soon revealed to be shots the director’s father took in the eighties. A young girl often appears in this home archival footage, Ferri herself. So the film is about memories and the necessity of leaving them behind to start a new life far away from their country of origin. In this year’s selection at Nouveau Cinéma, there were many films about nation and identity, some quite notorious, such as Ste. Anne (Rhayne Vermette, Canada, 2021), The Edge of Daybreak (Taika Sakpisit, Thailand, 2021) or District Terminal (Ehsan Mirhosseini, Bardia Yadegari, Iran, 2021). But it was Damascus Dream that presented the issue most directly by bringing forward the protagonists of an exile, the Syrian refugees living in Quebec Province.

The first of them is Ferri’s father. A good amount of scenes see him and her daughter establishing a conversation around what it means to be Syrian in Canada, on how Ferri’s Syria can only be constructed from those tapes and memories. So is it a fallacy? Aren’t all nations and identities a political abstraction? Aren’t they all evasive? The film gets deeper into this line of thought by bringing in other members of Ferri’s family and meeting with Syrian expatriates living in the area for a series of interviews. Most questions are repeated each time, but diversity in both age and gender allows Ferri to gather different responses and compose a complex portrayal of this Syrian community. It might sometimes present itself as repetitive, derivative or unbalanced. Still, the poetic and reflexive voice-over, which guides the film through Ferri’s thoughts, manages, in the end, to blend everything together. This type of narrative is in the fashion of the recent masterpiece The Metamorphosis of Birds (Catarina Vasconcelos, Portugal, 2020), which in a way also presented a broader history of her country – specifically of the women that shaped it – through the personal history of her family.

In the end, Damascus Dream is an essay about identity in the sense that it draws from the personal to give a more panoramic vision of the matter at hand. It also feels like literature due to Ferri’s voice, who decides to split her narrative into ten chapters that deal with various topics. One thought leads to the next one, and so they are woven by the director, who utilizes four different methods to hit her target. There is the archival footage, this sort of cinéma direct with her father and the interviews. But a fourth element emerges in the film’s second half, which could be described as a performative fiction using a participatory approach with the community. Syria cannot be represented anymore, it has been literally destroyed, so Ferri decides to put together a couple of scenes that work as allegories of their situation.

One of them finds a young woman roaming about a huge empty building with the looks of a Tarkovskyan underworld. By the end, she is naked, losing everything that she keeps leaving behind. In the second enactment, the director gathers a group of refugees that pose static in a snowy landscape, with a boat trapped within the ice that cannot be moved in the background. A tracking shot captures the faces of these refugees, some of them wearing traditional clothes or other elements from their country of origin. The youngest has a more contemporary look, a more Canadian one, one might say. Whether intentional or not, this scene reminded me a lot of Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (Belgium, 1993), which she shot in the frozen landscapes of Eastern Europe right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, featuring the same kind of camera movement Ferri chooses for her scene. Tarkovsky and Akerman are certainly comparisons that speak highly of her capacity to create beautiful and evocative scenes. Both the way she shoots and how she writes announce a newcomer whose trajectory should be followed closely.

Victor Paz Morandeira
Edited by Justine Smith