We are in the Syrian city of Homs. A young boy runs off with director Ossana Mohammed’s camera, but just around the corner he is shot and killed by a sniper. It could just as well have been Mohammed lying there.
In 2011, the director decided to remain in Paris after exhibiting some Syria photos at a festival. He was too scared to return. Later, the reflective film Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait was born. The film premiered at Canned this spring where it was the sole Arabic entry. In September, the film was screened in Oslo and Bergen. After an eight-month exile, Mohammed is contacted by Kurdish Wiam Simav Bedirxan in Homs. She travelled from the Kurdish areas in Northern Syria to Homs to provide the world with a visual commentary to the violence.
In the film, Bedirxans’s fear is palpable – she films from alleyways, streets, the balcony, and in meetings with people. At the same time, Mohammed trawls the internet looking for short Syrian mobile phone recordings, which later will be used in the film they chose to make together.
The audience is confronted by all the horrific scenarios filmed by small mobile phone cameras belonging to alive, and possibly deceased, people. Beyond the «1001 excerpts» taken from phones and Bedirxan’s camera, the film is also interspersed with Mohammed’s poetic Paris recordings where he comments on the Syrian situation.
Some of the Homs war photos are well known. Dead people and ruins. We have seen it before, for instance in last year’s documentary Return to Homs. But, Silvered Water is a war film with a difference. This is a personal documentary, a more intimate take on the sufferings and tragedies Syria has experienced for more than three years.
Chaos reigns: To large, dead horse cadavers lie across a pavement. Bedirxan films two smiling school children, who in the next moment are pictured covered by green sheets as if deceased. In a deserted street, we see soldiers drag away two screaming young women. A man with a gunshot wound to his leg is unable to pull himself away from the street, and tries to roll away from the snipers. A couple of barely alive bodies are dragged out of shooting range and towards an open door, using long ropes with steel wired hooks at the ends. They may be able to save someone. Other phone excerpts show torture, beatings, blood trails, mass graves and dead bodies. We hear bombs rumbling, people shouting «freedom» or screaming with fear.
Bedirxan follows a small child who is wandering along the ruins of what used to be a street. The boy says that the sniper high up in the building is not going to shoot him, at the same time we hear Bedirxan explain that she is uploading film excerpts for Paris. Five percent, 20 percent – the boy carries on walking – then 70 percent uploaded. Will he get shot before she reaches 100?
Bedirxan is herself shot. The young woman lies on the bench wailing with pain in both Kurdish and Arabic whilst splinters are pulled out.
War poetry. In the film, Mohammed explains that he and a friend watched Hiroshima Mon Amour, Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras’ commentary to the wastelands after the nuclear bomb. This inspired his friend to start a film club. What type of club would it be, wonders Mohammed: a «Cinema of murder, cinema of victims, cinema of realism, cinema of poetry?». Silvered Water might be the latter. To him, recording people’s cry for freedom revolutionised filmatic images and expressions.
A man is strung upside down, tied to a spade
The horrendous scenes made several people walk out of the cinema in Oslo. The low res mobile phone images of death created perhaps not enough distance to mortality, blood and torture for some. But there is also a lot of silence in the film, and a musical and commentary sound picture which captures the rawness in a human framework. Mohammed’s wife, the composer Noma Omran, sings the melancholic music featured in the film. In addition, the phone images and Bedirxan’s camera are interposed with beautiful extracts from a deserted Paris – droplets streaming down illuminated windows, dark wooden railings belonging to a spiral staircase in a house, steely steps of an escalator, or a dark night being slowly penetrated by the moon’s lustre.
At one stage, Mohammed deems some film fragments a musical: a man pretends to play an instrument with his mouth and a couple of governmental soldiers dance along. But in the distance we see the victims. A man is strung upside down, tied to a spade. Several of the film clips appear to be shot by Assad’s soldiers and published online. Absurdly enough, they filmed their own acts of torture.
In Homs, there is a thud of shots, people die, and crowds of people run, panic-stricken. Civilians, small children and older women fall. Mohammed asks: «Do words carry any meaning? The words are dead. » The camera trails his ascent of the Eiffel Tower, and we hear «We are dying. All the fear. What is beauty? », and in the next excerpt we witness a man with his head covered in blood, dead, sitting in a chair in the ruins of Homs.
Bedirxan becomes ever more visible as the film continues. We see her open a small primary school. The little ones are taught, they draw, watch a Chaplin-film whilst they jump for joy. Simultaneously, Homs is in utter chaos, but these little gatherings give the children some form of meaning in their every day war lives. Until one of the rebels closes the school, because Bedirxan is too «liberal». She should have worn a hijab, he states.
She feels «like a stranger». The country she previously deemed «nation for all Syrians» included Kurdish people. «Death rather than humility! » she stated earlier. Now, she is thinking of escaping Homs, through one of the tunnels she filmed. Mohammed begs her to stay, she is a heroine, «life lives her», is his expression.
After 90 minutes accompanied by sound bites from Mohammed and Bedirxan’s 2012-2013 email correspondence, the film concludes with a snowy covered Homs. We see starving people sitting in a circle on the ground. And then, another body being lowered into a snowy grave. A year has passed. Just before the end credits roll, we hear Mohammed ask Bedirxan what certain words mean in Kurdish: «freedom», «white» and «red».
From Homs to Aleppo. Bedirxan’s Kurdish first name Simav means «silvered water», or Colloidal Silver, a substance often considered to be a natural antibiotics. It can also be viewed as the metaphor of the film, the «medicine» needed by Syria’s suppressed people. Or by Mohammed – he describes Bedirxan as the «woman who taught him how to build his own life. »
During the post film debate in Oslo, Hanan Albalkhe from the Syrian National Coalition, explained that the women from this region are very active participants in the uprising. That they are strong characters. Albalkhe recognised her Syria in the violent film images, this hell on earth that she left for Norway.
Silvered Water is unlikely to ever be screened on Norwegian TV. There are too many close ups of death. But this poetic access to the war is one of the strongest to depict war.
It is interesting to compare it with the documentary Aleppo – Notes from the Dark which was screened two days earlier by the Oslo Documentary Cinema. Directors Michal Przedlacki and Wojciech Szumowski created a classic, descriptive documentary. Last year, they tracked the circumstances of seven Muslims – among them a bread baker, a doctor, a journalist and a soldier – and followed their everyday lives. We witness shots being fired, ruins and the heroic deeds performed by these men in the bomb site that is Aleppo. Some seem more sympathetic than others, helping the wounded and starving. Others are using weapons, unavoidable as their peaceful demonstrations were hit on hard by Assad’s governmental army. As in Silvered Water, it is a film filled with dead bodies, and death and more death, but its language is more akin to that of a TV-report.
The strength of this documentary is how it is able to uncover the incredible cohesion of Syrians under attack, for instance as they run to save the wounded from ruins following a bombing, despite the possibility that the fighter jets may return to bomb them.
Norwegian filmmaker Anja Breien commented from the audience that she considered Aleppo – Notes from the Dark to be a report, whereas Silvered Water was more like a film. It may be that the latter stays with the audience for longer. Perhaps a more personal and poetic film creates a stronger impression.