War is messy. We all know the famous quote usually attributed to Aeschylus (525 BC – 456 BC): “In war, truth is the first casualty”. Be that as it may, sometimes small stories tell us more than feature films and documentaries. Zooming in on a detail, they bring out a truth that escapes the grand narratives, if only because they have to share such a narrative with many other stories.
9 days from my window in Aleppo
One morning in August 2012, Syrian photographer Issa Touma saw young men lugging sandbags into his street. Touma grabbed his camera and spent nine days holed up in his apartment, recording what was happening outside. The result? An unprecedented glimpse into a war that has been raging for three years now.
9 days from my window in Aleppo records the first days of war in a street in Aleppo, shot by photographer Issa Touma with a brand new video camera. From his window he records the youngsters who suddenly appear and start building a bulwark of sorts and start firing at some distant or close enemy. They seem unprepared and this could go anywhere. The film seems to record random scenes. Touma had to be careful and selective as his camera might run out of electricity, available irregularly in a city at war, co-director Thomas Vroege recounted at the screening of the Film at the Netherlands Film Festival. In a few days, Touma sees the youngsters replaced by grown ups wearing proper war gear. That is when he realizes the events have turned into a more serious war now; these guys are not likely to give up or leave soon. The film is edited with inter-titles counting the passing days. War doesn’t just ‘happen’ or ‘arrive’ here. It starts somewhere in limbo, with indeterminate actions, by people who seem unaware of what they are getting into and who, possibly without realizing it, pave the way for something worse. As a Christian, Touma decides not to take sides and switches off his camera.
The Sniper of Kobani
The Sniper of Kobani is a portrait of Haron, a Kurdish fighter who came to the Syrian town of Kobani to end the IS occupation. Haron works as a sniper, amidst the enormous ruins of the city. In his hide-out, he reflects on his hopes and nightmares.
The Sniper of Kobani tells the story of Haron. He has left his home to fight IS, one bullet at the time. In the beginning of the film, we see him enter a barber shop. He as welcomed as a brother and the barber asks him many questions. Initially he answers, but then it comes to his ‘job’ and casualties; things we are all curious about, such as how many he killed and who they were, but the Sniper remains silent. However, as the film unfolds, in voice over he recounts his story as we see him roam Kobani, a city in ruins. Staged or not, this editorial choice circumvents a traditional interview format while still posing a number of questions at him and contextualizing the answers.
The account of the Sniper is simple: it’s a matter of killing or being killed. The filmmaker, follows the Sniper up close as he arranges, takes position and shoots. The claustophobic atmosphere of hiding becomes tangible. The Sniper explains what it takes to do this: an understanding of mathematics to calculate where to aim to negotiate distance, speed and wind.
A young man must choose between two difficult choices, ensuring his lonely mother or fight against the terrorists who attack his village while he is preparing for his marriage. His old mother doesn’t want him to go because she has nobody else.
The Last Wall is a fiction film based on a true story. It is March 2015 and Hussein and his mother are finishing the house where he is soon to live with his bride. The atmosphere is peaceful, the surroungings of the village are beautiful and tranquil: a lake, palm trees. Images reminiscent of Apocalypse Now and indeed, appearance is deceitful here. When terrorist attacks are announced through an interupted radio broadcast, Hussein decides to join local fighters to defend the village and leaves his mother to finish the house. Later he is hit by poison gas, survives against the odds, only to return to his village to find it destroyed; his mother has disappeared. The film was made on location in Iraq near to the actual village and with local crew and cast. The reenactments are filmed in a conventional style of fictional drama. The film relies on a number of dramatic conventions, such as the use of metaphors and dream sequences to refer to future events or states. The staging and the use of music border on the melodramatic.
About midway, the fitional reenacting is interrupted by war footage shot by a real fighters, dated May 2015, and it is these images are the complete opposite of course: chaos and disrientation reign here and the images have little visual quality. It’s a short but compelling sequence. Rather than fiction representing images of a real war that usually remains hidden, although arguably increasingly less so, the reverse happens here: reenactments surround the true war footage.
These three films draw a line between war and a parallel world, not of peace, but of a kind of limbo upon which war encroaches or that exists alongside the fighting. 9 days… records exactly that limbo in which war approaches and one can imagine it might just as well pass by. In Last Wall Hussein struggles for his life while his mother is left to finish the wall. And in The Sniper… Harun escapes the fighting to get a shave. Maybe it is only in these parralel worlds that true stories about war can be told.