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A Syrian mother is separated from her young son when looking for a gas bottle so she can cook for him in the near-contemporary war drama The Day I Lost My Shadow (Yom Adaatou Zouli). The winner of this year’s Venice Film Festival Lion of the Future award for best first film is strictly speaking a fiction debut only, as the French-born Syrian director Soudade Kaadan already helmed the documentary feature Obscure, which premiered at CPH:DOX last year and which looked at a 6-year-old in a Lebanese refugee camp who was traumatized by the war in Syria. In her first fiction feature, produced by her sister Amira, Kaadan looks at the mother of a similarly aged boy instead, as she gets lost behind enemy lines outside of Damascus by accident.
Shot in a style that’s a kind of a maladroit verite realism, the film occasionally blooms into something more expressive, though the tonal shifts are often more awkward than rewarding. Still, the Venice prize, combined with a too-rare female voice from what is still a war zone, will assure plenty of travel — including the recent Toronto and L.A. festivals — and should at the very least help Kaadan find funding for her next project.
Pharmacist and single parent Sana (Sawsan Ercheid) tries to keep things as normal as possible for her little boy Khalil (Ahmad Morhaf Al Ali). Because the story is set during “the war at its beginning,” circa 2012, Khalil would still be able to remember what the relatively normal period before the conflict broke out was like. But simple daily tasks like keeping their clothes washed and clean and cooking their meals is very hard when there might be water for just 30 minutes and gas could run out at any time without any certainty of where to find more propane for your next meal.
Indeed, this is what sends Sana onto the streets, and when an army truck arrives and confiscates all the remaining gas cylinders, Sana decides to hail a cab with adult siblings Reem (Reham Al Kassar) and Jalal (Samer Ismael) to a place where rumor has it there might be some bottles left. But the cabbie, who has good reasons not to stop at a checkpoint (though he didn’t disclose them earlier to his clients), manages to escape the wrath, fury and gunfire of the soldiers at the roadblock and takes them out of the city and into an area in the countryside potentially crawling with militia.
The overall plot is quite basic, with Sana getting trapped in a situation where she’s far from home and it’ll be hard to get back, circumstances caused by her desire to do something for her son. Indeed, the opening sequence between the two overflows with warm feelings between the almost Madonna-like mother and her boy so as to establish the stakes, even if Kaadan doesn’t exactly shy away from some of the harsh adult realities of living in a city that’s being shelled and fought over. The large midsection is a kind of meandering, wartime picaresque, where Sana and the siblings try to figure out how they can get back to the city while encountering soldiers and locals and experiencing moments of complicity, joy and grief.
“It’s God’s fault, if God’s still around,” Reem says to her brother about the responsibility for the death of their older sibling, Jalal, who died before they met Sana. It’s a telling moment in more ways than one, also because as a whole, The Day I Lost My Shadow does not seem interested in religion or politics at all. Instead, Kaadan tries to foreground the feelings and the quotidian experience of regular folk during the first winter of the Syrian conflict.
The straightforward, documentary-like scenes — all shot in Lebanon, near the Syrian border — work best, and it’s clear Kaadan is most in her element here. Sana encounters a group of women from a village who are digging graves for their men, for example, even though they are unsure how many of them exactly will return. The pain of their uncertainty and the women’s need to deal with the war in the most pragmatic way imaginable are both powerfully felt.
The director occasionally will try to illustrate some of the characters’ emotions in a more lyrical way, such as in a point-of-view shot from the earth as Sana digs into it in a fit of rage. More often than not, these moments take the viewer out of the story as they clash with the handheld realism of the rest; instead of providing more emotional insight into the characters, they distract from the story’s overall flow because they aren’t well executed. The title of the pic refers to the idea that the trauma of war could make a person lose their shadow, for example, but this potentially fascinating idea ultimately isn’t mined for all its visual and metaphorical possibilities.
Part of this might have to do with the sometimes odd choices of mise-en-scene from the director and her cinematographer, Eric Devin (Degrade, Sibel). Take the scene in which Reem panics when Jalal doesn’t come back soon enough and Sana then throws more olive branches onto the fire so perhaps he can spot them more easily, but Reem then starts taking the branches out of the flames because Jalal told her that a big fire could perhaps be spotted by the enemy. The idea and setup offer strong visual possibilities, but Devin’s shaky cam then inexplicably frames everything in medium shots above the ground that keep the fire out of the picture for most of the time, so the message and visual metaphor never quite land.
As Sana, Ercheid provides a solid center for the story even if her characterization is a little thin; she’s barely more complex or human than a saint-like mother figure stuck in a war that’s largely abstract. Kaadan, who wrote the screenplay alone, also doesn’t really capitalize on the potential transfer of the mother-son relation from Sana and Khalil to Sana and Jalal, who needs looking after at a certain point, which represents another missed opportunity. Of the supporting cast, Oweiss Moukhallalati impresses the most as a kind villager whose poker face seems to suggest he’s seen things he’d rather not talk or think about. Kinan Azmeh’s barely-there score is used only sparingly, with its frequent absence heightening the documentary feel.
Production companies: Kaf Production, Acrobates Film, Metafora Production
Cast: Sawsan Ercheid, Reham Al Kassar, Oweiss Moukhallalati, Samer Ismael, Ahmad Morhaf Al Ali
Writer-director: Soudade Kaadan
Producer: Amira Kaadan
Director of photography: Eric Devin
Editors: Pierre Deschamps, Soudade Kaadan
Music: Kinan Azmeh
Casting: Moe Latouf
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Sales: Stray Dogs
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