«Can you believe I was right there, in Aleppo? We were drinking tea with a family at their house. They were such kind people. What is happening there now is so dreadful.»
Ten years ago, my mother – now over 80 – went on an exciting guided holiday to Syria. These days, every time she sees images from cities like Aleppo and Homs flash across her TV it upsets her. She shakes her head in bewilderment at how an ancient civilisation can turn into ruins and ash so rapidly.
How though, do Syrians perceive the situation in their country? What do people who have been locked in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons have to say? How can we find the answers? Films can offer a way in, with one such film having been made – in Oslo.
Inside a makeshift prison cell in an Oslo cellar sit three men. They have been «forced» to spend three days together in the sparsely furnished room with nothing but three single mattresses on the floor and a covered window. We hear the sounds of traffic from outside. The men have been brought together to talk about their experiences inside some of the worst prisons in Syria. There are no interviews – the men are the only people in the room, with cameras that have been set up beforehand. Director Dalia Kury – herself from Jordan, now living in Oslo with family in Syria – sits in a control room outside, making sure food is provided through a hatch in the door. Occasionally her voice breaks in asking the men to do something, but otherwise it is just the three of them. Privacy of Wounds is true to its title, sharing personal stories and scars.
The world of torture
«There are so many things I want to say, but I don’t know where to begin,» Hasan says early in the film. He currently lives in Norway and along with Mazen, who lives in Germany, belongs to the younger generation of Syrians. The third man, Khaldoon, is a few years older and lives in Switzerland. Of the three men, Khaldoon has spent the most time in prison – twelve years for hanging up protest posters. The other two have spent between six to eighteen months behind bars.
We hear the sounds of traffic from outside.
Their stories resemble a descent into hell. Gradually the men open up, and they begin with the topic of torture. Oddly enough this seems to be the easiest topic of conversation. In an almost business-like manner, they talk about water hoses, electric devices, beatings, kicks, and knocked out teeth. Watching the film, I shudder. How would I react?
All three talk about a certain numbness as if they cannot feel the pain. Instead, they wonder whether the torturer had a family. How could one of their fellow citizens have become like this, capable of literally pissing all over them?
The worst form of torture was perhaps being deprived of sunlight or hearing a wedding party pass by outside the prison walls. At these moments they would cry in their cell, cry for the Syrian people. Their sense of pride, they say, is everlasting, while their pain is temporary.
The three men keep their heads held high. They are not heroes. They are everyday Syrians.
In the film, we see them lying on thin mats, eating, drinking tea, and talking. They go from talking about torture to talking about masturbation, the fear of never having children again, and the people and things they miss the most. The tough masculine attitude eventually softens, and we get glimpses into their family life. Khaldoon, who was already an active dissident in the 1980s, was soon arrested. His father visited him in prison and said, «I am broken by your absence», with the tears dropping on his son’s face. «I would sell my own skin to set you free.» It is a powerful story – they all cry.
All three talk about a certain numbness, as if they cannot feel the pain.
It is no less powerful to hear Mazen tell the story of meeting his young son for the first time, after months of solitary confinement and a year of torture. Or when Hasan shows us how he used a chicken bone to sew up small wounds he got while in prison. He describes what it was like to see the sun again after 200 days underground – where he slept on a pile of corpses.
Democracy for the next generation
Arabic seems to render itself to a poetic form of expression. The words of the three «prisoners» certainly have a poetic quality, and their use of the language comes across as beautifully translated through the English subtitles. It is important for them to be portrayed as dignified individuals. According to them, they are now fighting for the next generation of Syrians – one with democracy and human rights – and the film offers a fascinating insight into how, despite all odds, these oppressed citizens persevere and look to the future.
Their stories resemble a descent into hell.
The director is successful in making us oblivious to the cameras in the room, as the main characters also seem to be. The genius here is that they ask their own questions. When the director interrupts sparsely, asking them to talk about a certain topic, it is almost disruptive. The great strength of the film is that it shows the three men confronted both by their memories and each other in such close confines. In one particular section they even «play around» by torture, slapping, and hitting one another.
The healing process
Privacy of Wounds can play an important part in the healing process that will have to take place in Syria one day. The film can also inform and inspire political activists and intellectuals in other repressive countries if it can even be shown in them. For the rest of us, it offers a powerful portrayal of the dignity of everyday Syrians.
Translated from Norwegian by Sigrid E. Strømmen