War is messy.

Willemien Sanders
Dr. Willemien Sanders, lecturer, department of media and culture studies, Utrecht University.

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.

Parallel worlds. 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 now been raging for three years.

9 days from my window in Aleppo records the first days of war in a street in Aleppo, shot by photographer Issa Touma with an old Nikon pocket 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 during its screening during the Netherlands Film Festival. In a few days, Touma sees the youngsters replaced by grown ups wearing proper war gear. That is when he realises the events have turned into a more serious war; these guys are not likely to give up or leave soon. The film is edited with inter-titles counting the passing days. War does not 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 realising, pave the way for something worse. As a Christian, Touma decides not to take sides and switches off his camera.

The Sniper of Kobani is a portrait of Haron, a Kurdish fighter who came to the Syrian town of Kobani to end its IS occupation. Haron works as a sniper, amidst the enormous ruins of the city. In his hideout, he reflects on his hopes and nightmares.

The film tells the story of Haron. He left his home to fight IS, one bullet at the time. At the start 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 when it gets to his ‘job’ and casualties; issues we are all curious about, such as how many he killed and who they were, the sniper remains silent. However, as the film unfolds, as the narrator, 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 directing a number of questions to him and contextualising the answers.

The account of The Sniper of Kobani is simple: it is a matter of killing or being killed. The filmmaker follows the sniper up close as he arranges, takes position and shoots. The claustrophobic 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.

The Last Wall. A young man must choose between two difficult choices, taking care of his lonely mother or fighting against the terrorists who attack his village while he is preparing for his marriage. His old mother does not want him to go because she has nobody else. This is a fictional film based on a true story. It is March 2015. Hussein and his mother are finishing the house where he is soon to live with his bride. The atmosphere is peaceful, the surroundings of the village beautiful and tranquil: a lake, palm trees. Images are reminiscent of Apocalypse Now and indeed, appearances are deceitful here. When terrorist attacks are announced through an interrupted radio broadcast, Hussein decides to join local fighters to defend the village, leaving his mother to finish the house. Later, he is hit by poisonous 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 the actual village, featuring 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.

(See the trailer for The Last Wall here.)

Midway, the fictional reenacting is interrupted by war footage shot by a real fighters, dated May 2015. These images are of course the complete opposite: chaos and disorientation reign, and the images boast low visual quality. It is 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 from my window in Aleppo records exactly that limbo in which war approaches and one can imagine it might just as well pass by. In The Last Wall, Hussein struggles for his life while leaving his mother to finish the wall, whilst in The Sniper of Kobani, Harun escapes the fighting to get a shave. Perhaps the true stories about war can only be told through these parallel worlds.

 


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