News from the Locarno Festival

Syria Year Zero

Syria Year Zero



What is realism? What is a fixed frame? How do you film torturers? How do you film victims? What does it mean to be filming or reading a book while bombs rain down (a book entitled The Memory of Bodies…)? These questions resonate loudly in Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s Ma’a al-Fidda (Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait), which finally makes clear that something amazing – despite the dreadful tragedy – has been happening in Syria in recent years. Something that Locarno was already seeking to identify last year, with a Focus that reconstructed film production immediately prior to the conflict.

This year Locarno is going on the ground, and, apart from the film by Mohammed (who is also chairing the Cineasti del Presente jury), is presenting two films shot inside the country and one documentary about a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan: Al-Rakib Al-Khaled (The Immortal Sergeant) by Ziad Kalthoum (Signs of Life), Tahtt Al-Khazzan (Under the Tank) by Eyas Al Mokdad and Orwa Al Mokdad (Pardi di domani) and Le temps perdu by Pierre Schoeller (Fuori Concorso). What is striking in all of these is the desire to climb up out of the depths of History, out of the rubble and out of a degree zero of memory, via a question that must always be asked: what is cinema? What is surprising is the ability and intuition of different generations of directors and artists (many of whom have become directors and artists precisely because of the war) to understand that when everything seems lost, when there seem to be no more words that can be used for such a great horror, then this is the moment to speak, and this is the moment not only to denounce, but to do it while questioning the very means of expression, taking nothing for granted and perhaps eventually being able to start again and reinvent everything from scratch.

And so they start from infinite subjective shots. Like that of Ziad Kalthoum, who takes off his military uniform and goes to work in the centre of Damascus as assistant director on the set of Mohammed Malas’s latest film (Ladder to Damascus), discovering that the set itself is still and always a war zone (as we have learned from Jean-Luc Godard and Samuel Fuller), where actors and crew reproduce the external conflicts. What’s more, in this case they are interrupted by the real war, which constantly forces them to stop shooting as planes pass overhead, distorting the sound.
Or Orwa Al Mokdad’s night-time flight in the short Tahtt Al-Khazzan, in which the director is genuinely fighting to survive, pursued and wounded by the security forces but nonetheless never switching off his camera, which becomes the only witness, the only light in the darkness.

And so finally in Ma’a al-Fidda it is not just a question of documenting the scattered and universal form of guerrilla defence made up of a thousand eyes and hundreds and hundreds of mobile phones and small video cameras, but of uniting them all in a single gaze, boldly rescued from the violence by a young Kurd from Homs (co-director Wiam Simav Bedirxan), a foreigner in a martyred city, demolished, filled with blood, unrecognizable, populated only by children and mutilated cats who wander through the ruins.

It is a question of reflecting on the “simple” statement that all Syrian people film: they film the young pacifists who demonstrate on the streets, they film the torturers in the prisons, they film the armed rebels and they film the dictator’s soldiers (a marathon, Ossama Mohammed calls it, the longest film in history). We are no longer alone facing the great void, dirty and terrifying, of a war even more repellent than many others. And it is not just that a film today can (and must?) be made of other people’s images, the infinite adventure of the Other. It is that this “thing” called cinema, forced every time to ask itself what it really is, is still capable of showing the invisible point of hope, the flower that simply grows at the base of a house razed to the ground, capable of appearing where humanity basks in blindness and forgets that it is human.

Lorenzo Esposito

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