How do we begin to comprehend the enormity of the Syrian tragedy? There are, to begin with, the staggering numbers. A New York Times piece published on Feb. 11, 2016 put the number of dead at 470,000, twice the number the preceding year. (I recall when the reports were that 100,000 had been killed in the Syrian conflict—and I thought that was incomprehensible.) Who are those who have died, why, what are their stories, and how does they affect us? People who know I lived in Syria (between 1992 and 1994 in a Damascus that was peaceful and artistically vibrant though ruled with an iron hand) sometimes ask me: Do you know people who have died? And I have to say: “Probably.” The dead have no voice. They cannot write or call to tell you they have died.
In addition to those who have died, many more have been displaced from their homes, fleeing either to other places within the country, or crossing borders. More than 4.5 million refugees from Syria are in just five countries—Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt—according to 3 February 2016 reports. European countries such as Germany, Serbia, Greece, and Sweden have opened their doors to some. Gulf countries—including Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain—have offered ZERO resettlement places to Syrian refugees. In the U.S. we’ve seen how politically charged the issue is. Compared to the total numbers of refugees and the number taken in by Germany and other countries, the U.S. has done very little. The numbers rise and as time passes, people become more and more desperate to leave, many handing over life savings to unscrupulous human smugglers, risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean in rickety, unseaworthy vessels.
Artists seek means other than death tallies and measuring the duration of the conflict to represent and help us understand something whose scope is beyond imagination. I have trouble imagining one death, let alone two, or three, or a hundred, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand! How did each of these people die? How can so many deaths be portrayed? This conundrum has haunted artists and writers—those who have witnessed events directly and those who have been on the outside—who have sought in some way to represent other unimaginable horrors.
The 2014 film Silvered Water (Ossama Mohammed, 2014) is a splendid example of one artist’s attempt to portray the Syrian tragedy. I’d known of the film for some time, but saw it only this past spring when we brought it to show at Middle Tennessee State University. It’s a powerful film. At the end of the showing the audience remained silent in their seats, not inclined, it seemed, to discuss what they’d seen. No doubt on their own people reflected on the relationship between the film, the events in Syria, and themselves, as viewers and world citizens. When a work of art has that kind of effect it has to be deemed a success.
The question of how to represent the experience of on-going tragedy in Syria is foregrounded in this artfully crafted film. The film opens with three images that recur throughout the film, like images in a poem or leitmotifs in the overture of an opera, creating an aesthetic sense of cohesion: The dripping of water from a faucet (accompanied by amplified sounds of dripping); the grainy image of a half-naked man subjected, squatting, head between his legs, then kissing boots of soldier, then being kicked; a newborn baby wriggling and crying, its umbilical cord being cut.
At the outset, too, intertextual connections to 1001 Nights are quickly established: “This is a film made of 1001 images, shot by 1001 Syrian men and women.” Thus, like the revolution itself, it is a product of individual efforts from various points of view, various positions on the political and geographic spectrum, “channeled into a portrayal of the communal tragedy of the whole country” (Lava Asaad, personal correspondence, June 12, 2016). Like 1001 Nights, this film is the result of collaboration, an assemblage of stories and images pulled together from different times and places, by an editor in his studio, a place of relative security—just as we can imagine editors of 1001 Nights working in Syria or Egypt, selecting, arranging and stitching together a volume of connected stories we know as 1001 Nights. One of the first of several dozen chapters in the film is titled “The First Night” and the last chapter is called ”1000th Night.” These chapters, of varying length, are divided by black spaces (a device used effectively in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise), a kind of filmic equivalent to those moments in 1001 nights when Shahrazad falls silent, breaking off her story until the next night, keeping herself and the story alive.
Under the threat of death, a number of stories are told, some interlocked, some continuing, some not, characters and storylines interrupted and conjoining. The story begins in Daraa (“The train has departed from Daraa”) the site of initial resistance to the regime, and we see footage of ordinary Syrians rising up, chanting, “The people want to bring down regime” and “Freedom, Freedom, freedom.” Other places in the film we see men smashing images of Bashar al-Assad, head of the regime, and men and women escaping attacks, helicopters and tanks threatening—huge mechanical killing insects. Other shots show young soldiers gleefully operating tanks, dancing, singing pro-regime hymns.
So there is the story of the conflict itself. In a chapter titled “Marathon” the narrator fills in some background behind the uprising: forty-two years under the rule of Hafez al-Assad (Bashar’s father). In “Spartacus” the camera remains focused on a defector from the army who tells his story directly into camera (like a confession or tapes of suicide bombers before they carry out attacks)—how he was asked to attack “terrorists” and found ordinary citizens demonstrating peacefully. He refused orders to fire on his fellow citizens, taking refuge in the crowd, and appeals to his audience to resist as well.
“And cinema began.” Ordinary citizens pick up cameras and begin shooting, documenting the brutality. We get a brief story of how a cinema club was started in Syria, with references to a showing of Hiroshima Mon Amour. A very brief chapter titled “Douma mon amour” is an homage to the young man who began the club, showing a still of his photo.
Almost one-third of the way into the film, the director/narrator, Ossama Mohammed, introduces himself, inserting his own story into the film’s fabric. Images of clouds. 9 May 2011. The date he left Syria, heading towards Cannes without a film. “I am the film . . . carrying 1001 images. I carry them to tell the story.” Images of a subway. Scenes in Paris. Ossama Mohammed in exile. Not so much of a narrative, as a montage. Living outside: feelings of impotence and cowardice. I left. Others remain. I am in a place of relative safety; others’ lives are at risk every day. “Image Counter Image”: Shots of a subway juxtaposed with shots of torture. Here/there. Images of silvered water. Rain on slate, raindrops sploshing on a window.
Soon after he introduces himself, we meet another central character who joins him, becoming a central storyteller, telling stories through film: Simav, Wiam Simav Bedrixan, whose first name means “silvered water,” a young Kurdish woman from the city of Homs in central Syria, who with the aid of technology reaches out across national borders and contacts the director. “In Homs clocks have no hands. . . . I have a story.” Her presence (and the presence of the Kurdish language) reminds us of the vibrant ethic and religious minorities in Syria and their role in the revolution. Ossama proposes that they work together on the project. Thus, we have the voice and perspectives of a female insider, alongside that of the male outsider. The roles of Shahrayar and Shahrazad are revised, if not inverted, as Simav tells her stories to Ossama, not under threat from him, but her life constantly at risk in Homs. The telling of her stories rather than ensuring her survival, rather increase the chances of her own death. We see her smuggle a camera into the city, at great risk. We see her set up a school. We witness the siege and destruction in the city. We see her wounded. We become aware of the fragility of communication in times of crisis and war, particularly the tenuous lines connecting those inside with those outside. When he does not hear from her for days or weeks, he wonders what has happened to her, whether she is still alive. She recounts attacks on the city. “The bullets didn’t want to kill us. On legs made of wind I fled.” In a chapter titled “The Siege” there’s more poetry: “The corpses left in the streets to memory”; “washed clothes waiting on lines.”
Simav: Do words still have meaning? . . . Words are dead.
Ossama: “Yes words have meaning.”
Finally Simav introduces us to Omar, a sweet young boy in Homs whom she befriends and follows with the camera. Omar becomes a star; the film is dedicated to him. He has lost his father. We see him talking to his father at his gravesite. We see him negotiating the streets of Homs, aware of where snipers lurk. We see him beneath a mulberry tree, picking the fruit. These are images we are left with at the end of the film, not knowing what will happen to him, just a small child. Does he live? Perhaps not, we imagine. “Survival is the strongest of choices,” director says to Simav, again invoking Shahrazad’s plight, the knife always hovering over one, like helicopters of the regime, ready to drop barrel bombs.
Like an arabesque, like the war itself, life and patterns extend beyond the borders of the frame, seemingly endlessly. How long will this go on? “Syrians have made history’s longest film,” the narrator asserts late in the film. “1001 days. History’s longest funeral: 1001 lives.” Any work of art imposes artificial frames. Any ending will be arbitrary.
The film leaves us plenty to ponder over, for sure. There is, as already noted, the dialectic between inside and outside, Paris and Syria, built into the structure of the film, part of its thematic content. How does one make a film from outside the country? “Since I left Syria I’ve become a coward,” the narrator tells us, comparing his response to the courage he sees in Simav. “I want to go back, but I don’t.”
There is also a distinct metafilmic aspect, calling our attention to the nature of film, the role of the camera in the Syrian conflict as amateurs record what they see, and the making of this particular film. “Why don’t you film? Come and Film!” a voice (the narrator’s we presume) urges near the beginning of the film. “Don’t move the camera. Stabilize it.” We’ve noted how Ossama Mohammed proposes that he and Simav work together to make a film. And we’ve noted how the Cinema Club figures in the film. There are also, within the film, deliberate references to and reflections on cinema. The narrator proclaims:
“Cinema of Realism”
“Cinema of the Marvelous”
“Cinema of the Murderer”
“Cinema of the Victim”
We are invited, thus, to reflect philosophically on the very nature of film, connections between cinema and violence, cinema and war, as well as on particularities of the Syrian crisis.
A number of other features and techniques make us keenly aware of the constructed nature of the film. Sounds of sprockets of a film projector running, and the recognizable tones accompanying instant messaging are accentuated. At one point the film represents the process of sending and uploading large files containing shots Simav sends to Ossama from Homs to Paris: 5%, 20%, 70%. Then a text: “Did Omar arrive to you?” At one point, clips from Chaplin’s City Lights are woven into the film, after Simav writes to Ossama telling him that her young students need a film to watch.
All of these things make the viewer conscious that we are watching a film, that things have been manipulated with careful selection and arrangement of images and editing of sound. We have a filmic poem. Raw material and aesthetic arrangement are in constant tension: Art and the stuff from which art is made. Blood is aestheticized, red and abstract as in a Jackson Pollack painting. All of this disturbing material is presented so nicely and beautifully. Does this self-conscious aesthetic style, we might ask, heighten or work against the representation of this tragedy? Does it pull us into the suffering, or create a distance?
Silvered Water received a standing ovation when it showed in May 2014 at Cannes where the director and Simav met for the first time. Still, it will not satisfy all viewers. Particularly Syrians with a stake in the conflict may wish that it would have shown more about how the crisis emerged, or that it did one thing or another, or that it took a more definitive political stand. (It would not be a conflict of such magnitude unless there were passionate, differing points of view!) While the film clearly is an indictment of the Assad regime, it is not as overtly political as films such as Red Lines (Andrea Kalin and Oliver Lukacs, 2014) and The Return to Homs (Talal Derki, 2013) whose pro-rebel, pro-revolution positions propel the narrative. As already noted, aesthetic concerns contend with political ones in Silvered Water. Thus, anti-regime viewers may be disappointed that the film is not more ideological. At the same time, those sympathetic with the regime (yes, there are some) may object that this Syrian portrait is lopsided, omitting mention of atrocities committed by Rebels, Al-Nusra, and Islamic State. The conflict has generated large quantities of images and film, much shot by ordinary citizens. We can imagine that there will be many more creative responses in years to come.