'Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait': Cannes Review

Silvered Water Cannes Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

Silvered Water Cannes Film Still - H 2014

A distanced approach makes it bearable to watch an unrelenting parade of atrocities, giving the measure of horror in Syria better than any documentary so far.

The horrors of the war in Syria and the siege of Homs are recounted with crude realism and poetic imagination.

Shot by “1,001 Syrians” according to the caption, Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait is a relentless chronicle of the horrors of the war told through grainy, jumpy, pixillated eye-witness accounts shot on cell phones. The immediacy the film achieves is shocking, but it is also mediated by three things: filmmaker Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s more professional vid-cam shooting during the siege of Homs, filmmaker Ossama Mohammed’s highly expressionistic editing together images, sound and music, and their intimate reflections on what they themselves are going through. If it were not for the distance these elements create, the film would be unbearable to watch, though its intense poeticizing can grow tiresome and will be a foreign taste to audiences used to TV.

After watching undoctored shots of maimed animals and dead children, men being shot on screen, teenagers tortured in prison and streets flowing with blood, it’s hard to feel anything but outrage against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his blood-thirsty army.  Some may read the film as a call for military intervention, but that is not its main intent. Mohammed, from his anguished exile in Paris, and Bedirxan, a brave Kurdish woman who smuggles a small camera into Syria, are more observers and witnesses as they struggle long-distance to “capture” the civil war on any kind of visual support that comes to hand. While cell phones furnished the world with first-hand images of Iran’s Green Revolution, then the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, this is the first time that such a technique been so systematically exploited. And the results are devastating to watch.

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In the first half, Mohammed (whose films Stars in Broad Daylight and Sacrifices have screened in Cannes) creates surreal, almost lyrical sequences out of mobile phone footage. How he obtained it is anyone’s guess, since one oft-repeated shot of a badly beaten teenage boy stripped to his underwear and forced to kiss a soldier’s boot before being raped could only have been filmed by the army itself.

Syrian cinema has always been notable for its abstraction and its poetic vision even amid pain (Mohammad Malas’s 2013 Ladder to Damascus is a prime example.) Ossama Mohammed, an outspoken critic of Assad’s regime, shows great artistry in editing together these lacerating images, intercut with the rainy Parisian grays around him. He is tormented by feeling like a coward for being safe from the war, while he pushes young Bendirxan to film everything she sees in Homs. Incredibly enough, she was there in May 2012 during the terrible siege, filming the tragedy of a murdered city. She is particularly attentive to the small children she teaches for a while and ponders their future and their fate.

Cinema as life is a thread that runs through the film. The narrator tells the story of how his camera was snatched on the street but before he could catch the thief, the boy was shot to death. Now he appears in Mohammed’s dreams. Self-reflexive filmmaking is supposed to be a distancing device for the audience, and never was it more needed than here, to mediate the terrible images of the dead and wounded being hooked to wires and dragged across streets to get them out of the range of snipers, or children alive in one shot and dead in the next. 

Along with the excellent editing and surprisingly modern use of natural sounds like gunshots to create rhythm, music creates an underlying human context that soothes and mourns through singer-composer Noma Omran, whose soaring voice is heard in opera-like songs.

Venue: Cannes (Out of Competition), May 15, 2014

Production companies: Les Films d’Ici, Proaction Film in association with Arte France -  La Lucarne

Directors: Ossama Mohammed, Wiam Simav Bedirxan

Screenwriters: Ossama Mohammed, Wiam Simav Bedirxan

Executive producers:  Serge Lalou, Camille Laemle, Orwa Nyrabia, Diana El Jeiroudi

Directors of photography: Wiam Simav Bedirxan, Ossama Mohammed

Editor: Maisoun Asaad

Music: Noma Omran

Sales Agent: Doc & Film International

No rating, 92 minutes.