Discovering a cinema of civil war.
To read an interview with Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait producer Orwa Nyrabia, click here.
At the Cannes Film Festival this year a gossamer young woman in a red shawl and ankle-length black dress stood before rows of film professionals and sobbed. She was not weeping tears of gratitude for her latest award, nor was her thinness a product of the Paleo DietTM. The woman was Wiam Simav Bedirxan, co-director with Ossama Mohammed of Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait. She was crying because she had just arrived on the Côte d’Azur from Homs, a Syrian city being turned into a vast heap of rubble as we clapped. She was thin because it’s hard to get a square meal in a city under siege. As Wiam Simav Bedirxan stood speechless, buffeted by the prescreening ovation, I felt a little less jazzy about my first taste of the palm tree and cocktail hour life and my fascination with the yachts that glimmered in the harbor as I fought for hors d’oeuvre on the beach. Yet all this pomp and circumstance were supposed to be for movies, right? And Bedirxan and Mohammed were being applauded for what turned out to be an essential movie. It was also one of the most painful things I have ever seen.
Ossama Mohammed was an acclaimed Syrian filmmaker in his late fifties when he traveled to Cannes in 2011 to bear witness to the civil war freshly unfolding in his country. While in France, he was informed that it would be dangerous for him to go home. He went into exile in Paris but continued trying to document events in Syria, turning to the Internet to cull images and find someone to replace him on the ground. He eventually connected with Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a young Kurd whose name means silvered water in her native tongue. Bedirxan traveled 500 kilometers to smuggle a camera back to Homs. She asked Mohammed what to film. “Film everything,” he told her. The first time we see her face, she is having a bullet extracted from her thigh.
Downloading and editing images in Paris, Mohammed allows us to witness Bedirxan become a filmmaker (based on her voiceover, she is already a viscerally evocative poet). The film’s formal and human triumph is generosity. Mohammed composes an elegy for the Syrian people, pulling their images together and shedding tears both for the victims and the perpetrators. In Bedirxan, he finds the embodiment of what he wishes every Syrian could be, what every human should wish every other human to be. When she isn’t rushing from one place to another to save her life, Bedirxan opens a school. Eventually some fundamentalist insurrectionists shut down the school because Bedirxan won’t wear a veil. She would be the last one to tell you so, but she is a hero. In one of the film’s most emotionally revealing moments, Mohammed says he is encouraging her to leave Homs because he wants her to be less of a hero, to come closer to him, so that maybe they could meet. Like most good movies, Silvered Water is also a love story.
If you see Silvered Water—which you must—you will see images of naked boys being beaten by soldiers, of dead children and maimed animals and blood pouring into the street. You will also see—repeatedly—a pixilated image of a baby as it has its umbilical cord removed. Silvered Water is more than a documentary about atrocity. It is that rare film that tries to encompass the world, leaping from birth to death in the space of an edit. Mournful music builds Silvered Water into a funeral march for Syria, but Syria is still being born. People like Bedirxan and Mohammed allow you to hope that the world is still being born.
Silvered Water also valiantly attempts to make sense of the promiscuity of images. By editing together YouTube shots of horror, by repeating them, slowing them down, and talking at them, Mohammed recovers these tragically banal images’ impact and gives them meaning. He makes them personal. He makes them cinema. A cell phone video image tilts back from a triumphant anti-Assad march to the sky and is edited with another image of the sky, which pans down to reveal bodies, toppled motorcycles, and people running from gunfire. The basic syntax of cinema is updated with the terrible intimacy of the devices we carry in our pockets. Because it occupies the frequencies we inhabit, the frail sound of machine gun fire recorded by a telephone is a million times more disturbing than the Skywalker Sound slabs of Hollywood bullets. The pixilated image of a naked boy being forced to kiss someone’s boot defies my aesthetic canon—I’m a celluloid traditionalist—but is powerful because of the pixel. The pixel is a constant reminder that an individual stood in a jail cell and decided to video another man’s humiliation on a device much like the one you may be reading on.
Is it obscene to speak of aesthetic canons when describing massacres? On the contrary. Silvered Water’s greatest achievement is to reel in the world’s chaos and make it a work of cinematic art. There have been other films about the situation in Syria and sadly there will be more. Some have been brave and powerful—like Talak Derki’s The Return to Homs, shown at New Directors New Films last March—but none have transcended the document the way Silvered Water does. Why should this matter? Why is it so desperately important that the film’s last words are, “What is cinema? What is beauty?” Mohammed’s way of understanding the world—the knowledge he passes on to Bedirxan—is cinema. By staying the course of their art, Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan prove that they are not just surviving. They are living.
Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait screens at the 52nd New York Film Festival on Wednesday, October 8. Read a conversation with Orwa Nyrabia, the film's producer, by Pamela Cohn, on BOMB Daily later today.
Nicholas Elliott has been New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 2009 and is Contributing Editor for Film at BOMB.