I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Civil war, exile, and documentary as art.
Toward the end of his film Eau argentée, Syrie autoportrait (Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait), director Ossama Mohammed states that his country has made history’s longest film and that the 1001 filmmakers whose images he has used to craft it have recorded and participated in Syria’s longest funeral. Through an ongoing dialogue, both verbal and written, Mohammed and co-director Wiam Bedirxan—a young Kurdish woman whose name in her native language is Simav, which means silvered water—create a poetic lamentation for their disintegrating country caught in a brutal civil war between warring factions entrenched in regime-, ISIS-, and opposition-controlled zones. Over 170,000 civilians and counting have been killed, and there continues to be a massive exodus of refugees. The war has destroyed their homeland, making the landscape of one of the most ancient civilizations on the planet unrecognizable.
The sixty-year-old Mohammed is a renowned filmmaker whom Bedirxan—an elementary school teacher—contacted online. She asked him what he would film if he were there. Silvered Water documents the destruction and atrocities of the civil war through a combination of footage shot on mobile phones or small cameras and posted to the internet; footage shot by Bedirxan during the siege of Homs; and, pensive and sad missives from Mohammed from Paris, where he lives in forced exile as a dissident. He relates his tormented feelings of cowardice as he watches what’s happening in his country from afar, and of how haunted he still is by images of a boy shot to death for snatching his camera on the street.
Producer Orwa Nyrabia was Ossama Mohammed’s assistant while Nyrabia was still a student in Damascus. He and his business partner and wife, Diana El Jeroudi, are filmmakers as well. They’ve made their mark on the international stage as producers and run their own company called ProAction Film. They started a documentary festival in Damascus in 2008, the first ever in the country. The last edition was in 2011, ending just a few days before the revolution and subsequent massacre began.
In 2012, Nyrabia was arrested and detained by the Syrian Military Intelligence at the Damascus International Airport. His family lost contact with him shortly before he was supposed to board a flight to Cairo. A very high profile and relentless campaign for his freedom was disseminated by the international film community, which put such pressure on the regime that he was eventually released without charges. He and Diana relocated to Cairo. With problems in Egypt as well, they left and are now living in Berlin as refugees, Germany being one of the very few European countries to grant them asylum.
Orwa and I have been friends for quite a few years, initially meeting in Tehran, at the Cinema Vérité Iran International Film Festival. Our friendship solidified when I was invited to attend DOX BOX in Damascus that year, on what proved to be the second leg of what I was then referring to as my Axis of Evil tour. Orwa and I now live in the same neighborhood in Berlin and on the day after the announcement of American airstrikes against ISIS, we met at a local café to carry on a long-running conversation. We began by discussing our thoughts on an eighty-three-year-old avant-garde director—one also very much engaged in the world of politics and ideas through his filmmaking.
Orwa Nyrabia One of my favorite moments in my documentary film life was meeting and interviewing Ricky Leacock. At one point, he exclaimed: “That phony guy, Godard!” So whenever somebody mentions Godard, I just automatically think those words: That phony guy!
Pamela Cohn Their collaboration fell apart.
ON Yes, they had a bad go together. But, 1 AM is a film that has become my favorite of all time about deconstructing the profession of making documentary. Once upon a time, in the early ’70s, Godard wanted to go and make a film about New York. Of course, the documentary stars of the time were there to help him. Ricky Leacock and DA Pennebaker co-produced the film, found the missing funding, did camera work, producing, etcetera. A couple of months later, Godard with his French elitist sophistication decides the film’s not going to work. He’s not managing to put together a film that he likes. So he just left. Penny, mainly, but also Leacock, decided to finish the film—they had shot a lot of material, but more importantly had funding and so they had to deliver something. They went into the editing suite and tried for some time to come up with a film and ended up with something they called 1 PM. I think it’s one of the best things they’ve ever done. It’s rarely exhibited. I have it on DVD in Damascus. It is the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen about New York. It’s completely out of classical story structure, an amazingly moving compilation of totally disconnected small portraits and happenings, but filmed so beautifully and with an amazing energy. I don’t blink when I watch it. The shit hit the fan when Godard left and they couldn’t restructure it. But they made something unique.
This “phony guy” Godard, according to Leacock, said the most pretentious thing, which I find very intriguing. He said, “To be or not to be is not the question.” That’s how I feel these days with all of the news. There’s such a huge level of absurdity. It’s definitely not the question, “to be or not to be.”
PC I’ve watched a lot of Syrian films, both fiction and documentary over the years I’ve known you. You’ve exposed me to the beautiful tradition of Syrian cinema. Watching Return to Homsand Silvered Water was not the first time I paid attention to, and began to understand, the modern Syrian sense of humor and perspective. But because these pieces are shot in real time, the ability to be able to have this kind of footage creates a whole new “canon,” if you will, of tragi-comedy.
But now you have audiences asking you, Talal Derki, director of Return to Homs, and Ossama this very modern and deeply disturbing question: “But what can we do about this terrible situation?” These are people who come to these films as mere calls to action of some sort, which I find ludicrous. Then there’s the follow-up question that seems to negate the former: “Do we really need to see this? Is it necessary to show us the most sadistic, the most violent, bloody footage you can find and linger there?“ Because it is just short of unbearable.
ON That’s the experiment.
PC The experiment of how you present it?
ON It’s a multi-level experience in presenting this reality and an experiment to see the democratic aspects of watching, of viewing. Do we make this for everybody, for those who are forced to ask if it’s necessary to see it? Is a film defined by the violent moments in it? Or is it the overall outcome, the overall feeling you leave the theater with at the end? For example, with Silvered Water, I was so very scared before the release of the film. I didn’t know what would happen. How will people perceive this violence? Is it going to be perceived in the same way as Pasolini’s Salò, for example, which is much worse in its portrayals of violence?
I didn’t know. In my experience this film does not leave a very bitter taste when it is watched in theaters in direct opposition to when it is watched on a laptop. It becomes a different mode. The perception is fragmented. In the theater, it can take you to the violence and then out of it. Last week, the film was broadcast in Germany and France. It was put online for these two countries for a week for free. We are making a new version that is a bit longer when it’s released in theaters in France.
Anyway, I was waiting to see about the wider audience, not the festival audience from whom these questions you’re referring to come. The responses we’d get from average viewers in France and Germany were not so average really. It’s the cultural channel, not mainstream, but still, it’s not a festival. I’ve been following on Twitter, the French and German channels of ARTE every day to see what the comments are like. No one asked, “Do we need to see this?” I was waiting to see if someone would say ARTE should not show this; I was expecting it. I saw people inviting many of their friends to watch, but noting, of course, that it’s really difficult and not for the weak-hearted. But there were many emotional and moving reflections from an audience that are not the usual suspects. I know that any commissioning editor watching this film would say, I cannot show this. But I think they might be wrong. As I think they might be wrong in many things.
This film, in my opinion, manages to really speak to many people’s subconscious more than anything else. It doesn’t try to convince, nor does it lay down any rational kind of logic or context. What it does manage to do is move people on a very deep level—it takes hours, sometimes days, before they can even discuss it. That’s a special experience. And it’s Ossama’s right to try this, this one experiment, this one attempt to answer the question: What is censorship? What is necessary? That question might be a bit conservative, in the sense that it might be the beginning of discussing the legitimacy of censorship. None of us are really adept or experienced in making films during massacres, now are we?
I think I told you this before, Pamela. The thing that moved and shocked me was this note from Rithy Panh. He said, “Well, what can we do? It’s too much pain; we have to give just a few parts of it.”
I have no answers. But I can tell you that I’m willing to die in this profession defending the right not to censor, the right to experiment with what is usually considered unusable, unviewable. It’s all unviewable. Do you remember the last DOX BOX in Syria in 2011? At the time, Diana came up with the visual concept. It was all of us, the whole staff, covering our eyes with our hands—people who don’t want to see. That was the visual concept for this festival that ended three days before the beginning of the revolution. If you want to look away, you can. It’s all around this film—“You were informed, okay?” (laughter)
PC You are repurposing footage of this armageddon that’s happening in Syria for a cinematic work. It’s like the A-Team going in and getting the material. You’ve learned how to go in and out of there safely, how to get cameras smuggled in, how to keep filmmakers as safe as possible while they’re shooting, and getting footage out. You yourself shot a lot of Return to Homs, at least the first part.
ON That is one aspect of how it needs to work. But in Silvered Water, there was also the task of searching for the best quality of that footage from YouTube or contacting the activists who shot it, if they were still alive. The visual identity of the film is that it is all this very bad-quality footage. That developed organically in the making of the film. We would try to find the original footage, not the uploaded footage. We discovered gradually that it is only on YouTube because either the person who filmed it died or their hard drives were destroyed in explosions. Everything is gone. All that is left are these missives left in this virtual space.
When we get to the second half of the film with Ossama encountering Simav in the siege of Homs it’s kind of the same problem. Until today, I think there are at least four good-quality cameras spread around different places in Homs that did not manage to get to her. So she was always working with a very small, low-quality camera. The only way she could work was to compress her footage into small files and upload them to Ossama on Google drive. This was the very organic question of quality. What is quality in this sense?
PC This ongoing dialogue Ossama has between massacre and cinema within the film is staggering. He declares a new cinema of the murderer, a new cinema of the victim, a new cinema of the marvelous and the poetic, a whole litany of different types of cinema that he interprets for us as we watch one instance of live-action brutality after another, contextualizing this low-quality, pixelated, blurry footage. This is placed in juxtaposition to his more thoughtful, artful ponderings from Paris as we listen to Simav report what she’s seen and felt. He also implores her to write and write and write, never stop writing.
ON It’s his advice to everybody. That’s his answer to various things in life. That’s how you survive it—write it. It’s profoundly embedded in who he is, this relationship with writing, which he still does with pen and paper. What’s strange is that he is one of the pickiest filmmakers I have ever met about aesthetics. So even those bad-quality videos, he deals with the editing, the post-production, the color correction—and the same for the sound—in an extremely demanding way. In this sense, it’s millimetric; nothing is “bulk” about the way he works.
That’s how this co-directorship came about. Simav did not follow instructions. What she sent was coming from a different world. Her footage was very difficult to edit, for example. I remember when Ossama needed very short cuts to continue. He never told her what to shoot, but he was trying to establish a rhythm and a connection. But then she would upload a fifteen-minute shot. That created a different dynamic in the relationship and in the film itself. That’s why she was a co-director in the end. Ossama, one day, asked Diana and me about it, and we acknowledged that this was more than being just a protagonist, more than doing some of the camera work. She was a partner in authorship.
PC Can you please talk a bit about the structure of this in regards to the edit, because if anything needs structuring, it’s this kind of interstitial material that becomes ensconced in the overall narrative. The editing is meticulous, as are the bigger choices of how to present the whole cycle. And, in addition, we are witnessing someone emerging as a filmmaker. Ossama, even though he realized that Simav was not following instructions, as you put it, decided to leave these long takes in, just the way she shot them.
ON You have to understand, that was Ossama’s working synopsis of the film before we knew of Simav. He saw it coming and was totally right about it. The synopsis in 2011, before she sent him a message, was about the activists discovering cinema. Watching the terrible YouTube videos, he saw these young people trying to document atrocities. He was waiting. They had the camera; they had the emotion. He knew that they would discover cinema. They would find it between their souls and the lens.
We argued a lot about the structure, and he stayed with what he had in this extremely stubborn way—this four-act structure. As you watch them now, this is how they were originally written. He didn’t know what those four acts would contain but the structure never wavered. It was a very long process in figuring out how the film could work with the second main protagonist being introduced halfway through the film. We were all very worried and the editing process was extremely long, of course. It was like knitting something from a huge pile of hay. There was this moment when we conspired, because it was part of my role to help him finish it. There was a point where the cut was around 110 minutes, and the level of approval and acceptance was very high, and we all thought it was finished. After much discussion, we decided that it wasn’t done—after nine months of editing. So we continued for two more and the film became ninety minutes. I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to it.
As a producer, I am pragmatic in my belief in Ossama and his way of working. I trust the caliber of the work and his instincts and talent. But that also speaks to this very particular relationship I have with him. For this very reason, I was adamant about not pitching the film to anyone until I had a full rough cut in hand. That was my way of defending the film. There was a beautiful text, definitely. But at the same time, if I didn’t know him, and wasn’t ready to take this bet on this filmmaker, I would read the text and decide that it just wasn’t possible. A film like this cannot be made. Out of this first cut, he and I selected thirty minutes and that’s what we showed to financiers.
It was non-filmic, the text. I was not willing to limit the filmmaker’s freedom by somehow guaranteeing some kind of proposal for it. That results in a lot of risk and very little money. I mean this is a revolution—this is the time to do that!
I don’t believe the world audience is so limited that it cannot watch anything but entertainment. This leads to Fordism. If I want to find a way to impact the masses every day in every new film in order to meet this list of requirements, how do I bring the masses in to watch it, to not be offended by it, and at the same time, change something? These are all questionable propositions. Can you change something without offending at all? Can we entertain and at the same time challenge?
PC I think the tendency to push back against that multitude of obligations is more important than ever. We would never see films like this otherwise.
ON Films like this defend themselves and fight for themselves and find the right people to work on them. Ossama has Diana and me by his side because of this long-term relationship. But then we found Serge Lalou, our French co-producer who also took all of this risk from the first moment and started investing. The only possible television partner for this is the poorest slot on ARTE France, La lucarne. The commissioning editor, Luciano Rigolini, is aware of this very limited pool of people who would take the risk and partner, and we all managed to find each other. The overall budget of the film is under 200,000 euros. It went to Cannes and was on the front page of Le Monde, then to the Toronto International Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival. Then it will go on to London, and then we’ll see about the rest of the world. But it’s high profile for such small production value in that sense.
There is a big difference between me working as a Syrian producer and as a European one. The big money is received and spent in Europe. There’s no way to measure what is better, more effective, and so on. In my opinion, it’s impossible to measure what makes more of an impact—a more expensive but more marketable film like Return to Homs, a film with a pretty straightforward narrative line and an ability to play in a top current-affairs slot with wider audience reach—or an auteur-driven piece like Silvered Water by a seasoned director. You cannot compare the two films at all, not in terms of the methods of producing one or the other.
PC You’re going to continue to make films in Syria?
ON Definitely. No doubt. But it’s not only in Syria. It’s much more open than that. We produced a film from Yemen called The Mulberry House by Sara Ishaq, and we’re starting a project in Egypt. I’m also very interested in producing a film out of Bahrain.
When we say the region of Syria or the “Syrian issue”—it might be anywhere in the world. This is our priority. This is the time to do Syria, but it doesn’t necessarily mean inside the country itself. Some projects are inside, are very close to the skins of the people living there; others are investigating stories around the world, but they connect back to what’s happening in our country today. There’s an amazing level of risk to all of these things we’re doing—the risk of being incapable of guaranteeing what will come out of each project. It’s just like the way we used to work in Damascus. It’s our Syrian revolution form of insurance where someone comes to you and says, “Boss, if I die, will you take care of my son?” And I say, “Yeah.” And that’s it. You wouldn’t think it would really happen this way, but it does. That’s the pact. I don’t think anyone can do better or do more in such times.
The other day, I had the strangest thing happen for a newspaper interview that I had in the morning in Helsinki. That afternoon, something I said—and that I probably shouldn’t have—ended up being the headline. “It’s not enough that Super Obama flies over Syria and kills the bad guys.”
PC That was the headline of the interview?
ON Yes. It was a very long interview, but that was the title, and it was something I said in the middle of it. When I said it I thought: should I be saying this? And now it’s the fucking title of the article.
PC Tell me your thoughts about Super Obama going into Syria and bombing away at the bad guys.
ON Listen, it’s just like anything where we can say that it can be a good thing if they want it to be. But they always seem to do their best to see that it’s not. That’s all. Then somebody might say, “Oh, so you’re against destroying ISIS?” And I have to say, “No, I’m not! Please destroy them—please! But what then? How did we come to have ISIS? Because you did this ten times before!” That’s the only reason why we have ISIS. This is obviously not working.
PC You should do a remake of Dr. Strangelove, the Syrian version. How you stopped worrying and learned to love the bombing.
ON Do you know that the first time I wanted to make a film, that was my inspiration? My working title, as I recall, was “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Became a Bomb.”
PC When’s the last time you were in Syria?
ON In three days it’ll be two years. We were in Cairo for thirteen months and we’ve been in Berlin for almost a year.
PC This city, oddly, seems to be a haven for exiled documentary filmmakers.
ON For us, it was simply a political issue. We didn’t exactly have a menu of places to choose from. We talked to the authorities in a few places and the Germans were the ones to welcome us here. It took three to four months until the paperwork was done. Other countries did not extend an invitation. And here we are not as challenged, economically speaking, as we would have been in other European cities. I never wanted to live in a mega-city like Paris, for example. If I were in my twenties, the best thing would be New York or Paris, but for the past few years I’ve had so much noise that I cannot tolerate it on a constant basis. It’s been that way for years now.
At the moment, it’s only stand-up comedy that saves my life. It’s the only answer possible, that profound irony. There’s no other way to survive this huge mess of violence and pain and at the same time the challenge of coping with money and time. Those two things are the most difficult for me to deal with, these assets that one can have.
PC How does it work when you enter and exit Syria?
ON I cannot go to any regime-controlled areas. I am clearly wanted. I can go to opposition areas. I cannot go to ISIS-controlled areas because I am wanted there as well. There are all kinds of opposition areas, however, and some are riskier than others. It depends on the faction in control. So I will go, because I have a few ideas for projects I would like to explore.
PC Are the stories also focused on the siege of Homs?
ON No, not at all. I have absolutely no sense of patriotism about that.
PC Your hometown is gone.
ON I never liked it.
PC Okay, but I’m sure you didn’t want to see it decimated.
ON No. It was an amazingly moving experience to have these films take me back to my hometown. That city, for me, was so extremely boring; I spent my teenage years waiting to get the hell out. After I left, I hated going to visit. But then, during the first year of the revolution, it was beautiful to be in that city. On Syrian IDs, it is written where you come from. At the army checkpoints in Damascus, when they see that I am from that neighborhood in Homs, they become very hostile immediately. And you start to get this realization about your hometown neighborhood again because it means a lot to those soldiers trying to look for their enemy.
The singing and dancing and demonstrating—all of that was really beautiful. It kind of mended this relationship with my hometown. But it’s not about Homs. There is this country now, Syria, that really needs everybody, not only Syrians. I need to feel I’m doing what I can do about what’s happening there. That doesn’t mean I’m a Syrianist and that I need to go live there and defend it forever. That’s the place I know best. I can find stories, test things, communicate easily, but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter where I am at this point. This is something special about our profession. We reside within this widespread film community much more than in our local communities—at least those of us whose work is international. When we moved to Cairo, then to Berlin, we didn’t become Egyptians or Germans.
PC Life in the indies.
ON I love your country, but there’s a major, major issue with the US indie understanding of cinema. It’s all about competing with this invented mainstream in many ways. This is a big problem. I go back to the beginning of our discussion to revisit the question that’s asked: Why is it necessary for an audience of people to have to sit through the brutality of scenes presented in a film like Silvered Water? It’s just like when my grandmother—who was considered quite progressive in her day—used to ask, “Is it really necessary that we see a couple make love in a film? We can understand; a hint is enough.” Well, no, it’s not necessary at all. Should we only do what is necessary? Are we defending only the necessary here? Or are we defending fitting into all of the guidelines, meeting the expectations and preferences of the masses, no matter how bad the masses current situation, or taste, is? If we don’t do that and challenge the masses, are we becoming elitists, gallerists? I think the definitions in this sense are much more difficult to address in the United States than in Europe.
Where does that leave us—with the last wonderful manifesto of Michael Moore? (laughter) I tweeted that I profoundly admire and respect Michael, but it cannot be as simple as that. I called it fast-food cinema. On the one hand, I agree with his good-hearted, leftist approach of saying that we’re not educators and we’re not documentarians—we are filmmakers. What is this lesson that we’re giving ourselves and the world and the future? Are we saying we can fool ourselves, that Sony Pictures Classics represents independent film? Are productions with ten times the budget of the rest of the world’s films defined as independent film? What does this have to do with expression, with the history and the future of film? It’s very Fordist, all of this understanding of cinema as mass production, mass distribution, mass consumption. In this sense, I think it’s unacceptable. It’s not about film anymore. You cannot be critical toward it without also realizing this is another manifestation of that concept.
On the other hand, what are activist films? Is it always going to be these films that have a very clear standing point, an unquestionable truth about them that addresses the masses that already agree with the point of view on offer?
PC Moore-ism. But he’s not the only one calling for an end to that era. To me, it says that now that we’ve “lifted up” documentary, now that we’re allowed and encouraged to call it a legitimate art form, we can declare it dead.
ON I see your point, but I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s a serious effort to want to build a revolution—a revolution in the sense of saying that we can now take over the mainstream.
PC If you’re going to interpret it that way, then that’s an incredibly misguided mission.
ON But this is my goodwill understanding. This is how I see it when I look at the well-meaning Michael Moore, trying to really say something from the heart: “Let’s take over by being entertaining—but purposeful.” Purpose plus entertainment is film! Fred Wiseman once said he respected Moore but thought he was not interested in complexity. I think that’s the point. It’s not only about elitism versus populism, but the impact of activism becoming an extremely pretentious thing these days in the West, I’d say. Changing people’s minds about something requires a much more complex process.
At heart, one needs to really challenge the audience with the form and content of film. What we see most of the time are films that address a pre-set audience that already agrees with the statement in the film and films that already take a very aggressive position towards those who do not agree. All of these kinds of subject-based, investigation-based, look-for-the-truth-based films are bound to that. They cannot escape being built on prejudice through pre-set ideas and convictions. And then we add new outreach extensions and community screenings and all that, and we end up trying to tell ourselves we are changing the world. We totally are not. It’s a form of clear-cut masturbation where we’re just enjoying our agreement together. That’s developing on every level. There is a push these days to ensconce every new filmmaker in this format.
What this will lead to is not the death of documentation, but the death of cinema. If the imperative of authorship and personal interpretation of the world is lost—if a film doesn’t claim its philosophical value even when it manages to combine that with a reach to the masses—there’s nothing with which to compete, is there? If we’re not for free individual expression that challenges the world, then everything else is way beyond competition and that means that Hollywood won.
Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait screens Wednesday, October 8 at 6:15 PM as part of the New York Film Festival. It is currently without distribution in the United States.
Pamela Cohn is a media producer, writer, film programmer, and documentary consultant currently based in Germany and Kosovo.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee