Border: Film Review

Festival di Roma
A film with honorable intentions that struggles to suggest something about either the chaos and danger or the psychological toll of war.

Italian screenwriter Alessio Cremonini's directorial debut looks at two Syrian sisters who have to flee their home country.

ROME -- Two Muslim sisters try to escape contemporary, war-torn Syria in Border, the Arabic-language feature debut of Italian screenwriter Alessio Cremonini.

Cremonini has co-directed several shorts and TV projects and also co-wrote Saverio Costanzo’s Israeli occupation tale Private, which also was largely in Arabic. But that film’s sense of sociopolitical insight and urgency came from its mise-en-scene and its smart screenplay, both of which are largely absent in Border. The screenwriter-turned-director -- here collaborating with Jerusalem-based, Italo-Syrian journalist and now screenwriter Susan Debbous -- has opted for a generic-feeling flight narrative onto which some local details have been grafted. Among these details: the protagonists’ insistence on wearing the face-covering niqab, which provides the film with additional conflict, as the men traveling with the women are afraid it will attract unnecessary attention and its capacity to hide a face becomes a minor plot point late in the proceedings. Unfortunately, the veil also makes it nearly impossible to read the actresses’ facial expressions for much of the film, making possible audience identification with the flatly written women even more difficult.

This no doubt well-intentioned film, with its based-on-a-true-story label and the clear echoes of important recent events, should see some festival play, even if any form of theatrical distribution anywhere seems slight.

Fatima (Sara El Debuch) and her sister Aya (Dana Keilani) are visited by a man who claims that Fatima’s soldier husband will desert the Syrian army in two days to join the freedom fighters and that the sisters should leave at once for Turkey. This is necessary to avoid their possible kidnapping by the Secret Service that would force Fatima’s husband to abandon the rebel army. Though the siblings initially hesitate, they soon find themselves on the road with an unwilling male companion (Abdul Ahmed), who picks up a mysterious male stranger (Wasim Abo Azan,   strangely the first-billed actor) who’s also headed for the border.

Border actually opens with shaky and pixelated documentary footage from across the country that helps suggest something of the current turmoil in Syria (the actual story is set in the city of Baniyas, some 80 miles from Turkey). But besides helping to give some heft to the true-story claim, the documentary material stands in such sharp contrast to cinematographer Stefano Di Leo’s calm and composed shots and editor Andrea Bonanni’s classical, unhurried film grammar that the story that’s supposedly happening against the opening shots’ chaotic background feels like it is happening in another film and on another continent.

Though the manufacture of the film feels quite classical, Dabbous' and Cremonini’s screenplay doesn’t follow suit. There is a generic escape narrative -- the women have to get to the Turkish border no matter what -- but the film feels episodic even for this particular kind of life-or-death road trip. Characters are suddenly brought in or drop out in ways that neither adhere to classical story structures (in which each passing character or plot turn would teach or mean something), nor somehow reflect the messy tumultuousness of wartime life. Apart from the non-fiction opening scenes, there is rarely a sense of danger or volatility; indeed, as the story progresses, the film’s tempo feels ever more languorous rather than urgent. Last-act developments do little to heighten the tension and the open-ended ending doesn't help.

As for the acting, it’s very hard to judge a performance that happens mostly "in the dark"; because of their dress, only El Debuch's and Keilani’s eyes are visible most of the time but there are practically no close-ups of their eyes, only medium and long shots that reduce the sisters to cloaked figures that speak a (for most audiences) foreign language. This may be authentic -- though the film does make a point of saying not that many women in Syria actually wear the niqab -- but it also makes it harder for viewers to identify with what the characters are thinking or going through emotionally. Everything’s reduced to dialog ("Turkey is close but hunger is always present"), which, often, is not particularly insightful.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production company: Memo Films
Cast: Wasim Abo Azan, Sara El Debuch, Dana Keilani, Abdul Ahmed, Sami Haddad
Director: Alessio Cremonini
Screenwriters: Alessio Cremonini, Susan Debbous
Producers: Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Gabriele Moratti
Executive producer: Franco Cremonini
Director of photography: Stefano Di Leo
Production designer: Alessandra Stefanelli
Costume designer: Lisa Van Tran
Editor: Andrea Bonanni
Sales: Rai Trade
No rating, 92 minutes

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