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A revolution of images: An interview with Ossama Mohammed

Exiled Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed's "Silvered Water" is a love letter to both Syria and cinema. Read our interview and catch an rare screening on Mon, Sep 7 at 8:30pm as part of our Exiled Politics film fest.

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Exiled Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed speaks about his poignant masterpiece Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, screening at our Exiled Politics film festival on Sep 7 and 26. Check the Facebook event for more details.

When Ossama Mohammed left Syria for Cannes in May 2011, he didn’t know he wouldn’t use his return ticket. Yet after taking part in a panel discussion on “Making film in a dictatorship”, he was tipped off it would be unsafe to fly back. After four decades of de fiant filmmaking under the dictatorial rule of two generations of Assads, the veteran Syrian director was departing his country.

Three years of Paris exile later, during which he tracked every bit of video put online by fellow Syrians, Mohammed was back in Cannes. This time with one film: Eau argentée, Syrie autoportrait (Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait), the authorship of which he shared with an unknown Syrian-Kurdish woman called Simav Bedirxan. (Simav means ‘silvered water’ in Kurdish.) Every day for 11 months, Bedirxan, a brave thirtysomething teacher, had sent Mohammed footage of her life from the hell of the besieged city of Homs. Their daily dialogue provided Mohammed with invaluable texts and visuals for his film, which so far was exclusively composed of anonymous material – mostly Youtube videos. With Bedirxan, the “1001 voices” of the Syrian people were suddenly given a face. And a voice.

Following a hazardous journey out of Syria, Bedirxan appeared at Cannes in May 2014, where she and Mohammed met in person for the first time. When a shaking, obviously disoriented Bedirxan was sent to the stage following the screening, the jaded audience went onto its feet. The following day, leading daily Le Monde spoke of the “miracle film”. Sadly, German distributors didn’t see beyond the violence of the reality the film suggests, deeming it too ‘harsh’ to be released here. Yet when shown at Berlin’s Arab Film Festival last April, it received the audience award.

Few films linger as long and as insistently in one’s memory as Silvered Water does – ironic for a work partly composed of ephemeral Youtube footage. Giving little context to what we see, Silvered Water is no documentary. Rather, the film is Mohammed’s declaration of faith in beauty, as it can emerge from the ugliest reality through cinematic art. One Syrian citizen’s homage to the great people of Syria, it is also one great director’s homage to cinema.

Silvered Water will be shown twice (Sept 7 and Sept 26) as part of the Exiled Politics film festival co-organised by Exberliner and realeyz.tv at Lichtblick Kino. Producer Orwa Nyrabia – himself an exiled Syrian filmmaker, and close collaborator with Mohammed on this film – will be present to comment on the film and answer questions.

We spoke to Mohammed about the process of turning thousands of hours of raw, amateur and occasionally startlingly brutal footage into a poetic work of art.

Mr. Mohammed, tell us about about the genesis of this film.

I was there at the beginning of the Syria revolution. That’s when the film started in my head.

But you didn’t shoot any footage yourself, did you?

I was there, but, actually, the demonstrations in the beginning were not in Damascus. So, I was following them through images. And, for me, of course, it was the greatest moment in my life as a Syrian citizen. From the onset it’s been a revolution of images, which is not metaphorical – it is reality. As soon as the demonstrations started, Syrians started to film. It was not just one position or one person that decided to document – it was 1001 individuals. It was a real free act, and personal, to film this moment: to film the freedom, to film the happiness, to film the hope.

So your connection was from the beginning very visceral but remote – mediated through visuals found on Youtube…

Yes, from the beginning there was that feeling of being disconnected but at the same time connected to images and having an idea that maybe they were some kind of amazing material that could create a new kind of cinema. I found myself deeply inside the moment, but I was also internally editing and composing in my head. I started to write articles in the press and I mentioned those images; their force and their artistic value. And then when I was invited to Cannes, I decided to talk about those images, or to talk about Syria through those artistic images.

Did you know back then, when you agreed to take part in that panel in Cannes, that you wouldn’t be going back to Syria?

Absolutely not! I had my return ticket, I was planning to go back, but I was told to stay. I was told, “You don’t know what you did, and you don’t know how dangerous it was.” For the regime, according to their ‘stereotypes’, by being there talking about cinema and showing those images, I was against my country. From the first day that the revolution started, the regime was trying to eliminate the story of the people and to promote their own narrative instead. So I think that they saw me in Cannes as trying to open this space, open this window. That was when I discovered I was in real danger. A very close friend from Syria found a way to warn me – to say, “Take care, you are in real grave danger.”

I guess that’s not an easy decision to make – not to go back home to your people, to accept the safety of Paris exile instead…?

It was a very dramatic decision in my life. I was accusing myself, I could not accept my decision to move. It took a long, long period to make peace with myself because of all my friends still there, people making cinema. And I became a spectator from the outside…

But at some point you became more than a spectator – you decided to become a filmmaker. Faced with that flow of images, where did you even start?

You know, I’ve only made a few films in my life, but each time it was the same: I didn’t know exactly where I was going. That’s really what I like in cinema. But I always begin with the same word: freedom. To make a film, fiction or documentary, you have to test your freedom. This time, it was a particular one: how do you make a film about freedom if you are not free? I worked with a young Syrian girl – I decided to watch everything and she helped me organise this huge amount of material: footage taken at night, in the early morning, travelling, fixed, far away, close-ups – I started to build a kingdom of cinematographic material.

It’s unusual material – low quality, pixellated, anonymous. How to weave these bits and pieces of film into a work of cinematography?

From the beginning I decided to challenge myself and say “Yes, those images can tell this extraordinary story.” And their originality – the very ‘quality’ of the images could be the essence of the work. The question of high quality and low quality is interesting because it doesn’t have a fixed or a religious meaning. The stereotyped meaning of the pixellated image can change in the context of the narrative. I think it also comes down to the relation between you and the other [who films]. If I can come closer to that other – be in his moment, his process, then it can. It is not about what is going on, it is about the story of the feeling behind the camera, behind the mobile phone, behind the lens. It is the process, the growing of this feeling from the beginning to the end.

Tell us about the musical score. With her voice, Noma Omran lends those images a new poetical dimension…

From the beginning, as I was watching all those images, I saw a musical. I cannot explain why. When I talk about images, I also talk about sounds. In this case the singing put all this huge visual work in its historical, tragic context. The music and the sound link this moment with our memory, with humanity, with imagination and the soul. Noma is my wife. We were sharing these moments from this beginning. We were looking at the images together; she was coming into the editing group, recording in the editing room. It is also her narrative, her personal narrative. When we were researching the material, there was a lot of moments of crying mothers – of woman crying for dead husbands or sons or brothers. Noma could express all this, mediating emotion through her own voice.

Some people were shocked by the crudeness of some images in your film. Can one show everything?

What is that ‘everything’ I was showing? Showing ‘everything’ or a part of ‘everything’ is not the goal. It is all about the critical moment. The moment is the difference between aesthetic and dynamic. It is the difference between moving/momentary time and fixed, or static time. When you see a dead body in the street, it is one point – it’s static. Another thing is that dead body when the narrative puts it in its historical moment, in the real movement of time. When the dead body was in the demonstrations a few moments ago, fending for freedom and liberty, to see it killed it is not promoting a dead body, it is about the individual, it is the story of one human being. When you see that a minute ago the dead body was somebody sacrificing himself to save another dead body, to move it from the street, where it was left to be ignored, without a grave… this is not a dead body anymore but a great piece of humanity, a moment of beauty born out of tragedy. You see those moments and this is where you think, there is beauty beyond the idea that people can kill you.

Those categories – good bad or pixellated images; violent, bloody or harsh images – it’s a bureaucratic way to look at cinema. Yes, it’s hard, of course. It should be hard. It has no meaning if it’s not hard. But that’s not the point.

But what about the scene when they torture the young man in a jail? It’s hard to find any transcendental beauty there – I closed my eyes; I wanted to leave the cinema…

I think a lot about this moment, the tortured young man. They were asking him, “Who is your god?” and beating him. Even when he said “Assad’s my god,” they didn’t stop beating him. When I see the film now, I discover that it’s not easy to watch, I agree. But it’s one of those moments of pure reality. There’s no way not to see it, it’s the story of sadism.

Including the fact that, in this case, the filming comes from the perpetrators – torturers bragging about their sadism.

Yeah, absolutely, when this level of sadism is not enough for a sadist, they start to film it. But it’s still not enough, so they release it to show it to the public. It’s a kind of counter-narrative – it’s a war of images in cinema. It’s very important in this huge story to understand where the violence could come from.

So was filming that young man a way to hijack the torturer’s narrative – to re-appropriate its meaning?

Yes, I believe that cinema, cinematographic language, can save those victims from the narrative of those non-human people of the regime. It puts them in another context. When you see this tortured young man, you think, he’s not guilty, he’s not a slave, he doesn’t deserve this. The film is defending all his human rights by putting this in the frame. This is one of the narrative lines of the film. The cinema of the killer, the cinema of victims.

In the second part of the film, the person behind the camera is clearly identifiable: Simav Bedirxan, a young Kurdish woman trapped in the siege of Homs. She contacted you in December 2011, six months after you arrived in Paris. How did that come about?

It was a chat. She sent me a message which read “I will name you havallo (which means ‘my friend’ in Kurdish). I am in Homs, can I tell you a story and we’ll talk?” It happened exactly the way I narrate it in the film. However, it was just words. Then, when I built the film, I built it with images.

Was it immediately clear that she would become such a big part of the film, its co-author?

It was a very emotional, deep human moment. It touched me a lot because I was working all the time on the meaning of this revolution of images and here, it was becoming concrete. Also the fact she was a Kurd – because when Syrian people started demonstrating one Friday, the Friday of Assadi (which means freedom in Kurdish), it was the first time Syrian people used the Kurdish language. Kurdish was forbidden in Syria, they couldn’t use it in school. So, for me it was an emotional, human and important moment. I had the feeling that someone was opening the door for me to go back to Syria. It felt as if I was virtually going back to Homs again.

In the film there’s that memorable moment when she asks, “What should I film?” You answer, “Everything.”

I didn’t want to tell her what to film, as all my love for cinema began from the perspective of personal freedom. There’s about 100 ways to talk about ‘everything’. And in the beginning she was trying to film everything. She was starting to play the role of the journalist. One day she said to me a bomb had exploded nearby, it was a massacre, a lot of dead people. She said she wanted to leave this city and go to another place to film. I said to her, “You don’t have to cover everything, just follow your senses. You can comment on what’s going on in Syria from the street you’re standing on.” We didn’t want to follow the common route and film the bomb. You don’t need to prove that it’s happening, because it’s clearly happening! But I understand the feeling of people inside Syria trying to prove what’s going on. For them it was important to film the aeroplanes, the bombings and all the protests, almost like a fiction.

Simav introduces her own protagonist, that amazing little boy, Omar who’s making the most of life in war-torn Homs. For you, what does Omar stand for, the resilience of Syria?

The work was about exploring Syria and portraying it visually, so having Omar was a gift. With Omar the film discovers a human talent, a natural talent. Here we are talking about a boy, the son of a victim – his father was killed. He is permanently asking questions, has an amazing beautiful energy to ask, to discover, to create, and to change the meanings of the moment. The sequence when he finds the flower is a great story. It’s the maximum intelligence of a human being. He didn’t chose to insult the other, or hatred or revenge, he chose the flower. It was self-defence, a real story of him seeing the future, and trying to create the future.

To kind of salvage ugly reality… Do you know what happened to him?

When the agreement between the regime and the fighters inside Homs broke, he was evacuated… Everybody went out of Homs, Omar and his mother left the city. They were placed somewhere maybe 30, 40, 50km from the city in another region which was also bombed.

And Simav? Where she is right now?

Simav is in the Syrian refugee camp in Islahiye, Turkey. She made her choice, her very particular choice, to try and build a school in the camp to teach children. She was dying to teach, we are talking about a whole generation without school for a year. It’s a beautiful thing, very respectable.

Just a word about the first time you met face to face in Cannes. Was that something you arranged before? Was it easy to convince her or even get her out of Syria?

Since she was in Homs, I’d tried a few times to get an opportunity for her to escape for a while – always pushing her to save her life. She refused, she didn’t want to leave. She wanted to stay with her people.

What made her suddenly accept coming to Cannes?

It was part of a long persuasion process. It had a lot to do with the meaning of being safe. Are you a traitor if you are safe, or not… When I heard the film was selected, I immediately sent her a letter telling her. She said to me, “So, it’s a reality, it’s true that there’s a film.” She was stunned. I said she had to come, it’s as important as the work for her to be there. Then to get her to Cannes was a bit like a big Hollywood film. She needed to cross Syria and Turkey to Greece. Travelling through Syria, there were perhaps 50km under control of the regime, then another 50km under the control of fighters, and so on…

Were you surprised by the success of the film at Cannes?

At first there was no space in my head to feel what was going on. One of the narratives that was very important for me was to prove that it is artistic work. All those pieces of energy, including Simav’s, all this work belongs to art. It’s their film. The critics in the cinema, the audience, the way they received the film, it’s a great thing. It’s the maximum you can dream about. It’s the moment when you can find hope again. Somewhere there are loads of us who share the same humanity, we don’t have decision power, we don’t have the military forces, the economy. But we still exist, we resist. Maybe it’s Omar again.

EXBLICKS: EXILED POLITICS FESTIVAL, SILVERED WATER, Sep 7, 20:30 | Lichtblick Kino, Kastenienallee 77, Prenzlauer Berg, U-Bhf Senefelderplatz