'Our Terrible Country' ('Notre terrible pays'): Marseille Review

Courtesy of FIDMarseille
Topical glimpses of war-torn lives in the Middle East, alternately profiting and suffering from an affectionately intimate first-person approach.

Mohammad Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi's documentary on events arising from the ongoing Syrian civil war won the top prize in competition at the French festival.

Though its early stretches portend yet another explosive journalistic dispatch from the front lines of war-torn Syria, Mohammad Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi's Our Terrible Country (Notre terrible pays) slowly reveals itself as a quieter, more ambiguous and ultimately troubling chronicle of semi-inadvertent exile. Examining how two close friends extricate themselves from mortal danger into a safe but troubled retreat, this diaristic Syrian-Lebanese co-production has sufficient topicality to ensure plentiful festival and small-screen play. Winning the International Competition at FIDMarseille, where it world-premiered, also will boost its profile and exposure.

The primary focus is on the close relationship between 24-year-old Homsi (who shares directing and camerawork credits with Atassi and Saeed al-Batul, respectively) and 52-year-old Yassin Al Haj Saleh, whom we first meet amid the ruins of Douma — a city "liberated" by the "Free Syria" forces opposing the widely reviled regime of president Bashar al-Assad. Vistas of ruined buildings recall Talal Derki's Sundance-honored Return to Homs, perhaps the most rousingly persuasive of the current slew of Syria-centric documentaries.

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Quiet-spoken Homsi first is seen wielding a firearm during an operation to capture a strategically important tower-block, suffering a bloody injury but emerging victorious and defiant. Saleh, while not directly involved in the combat, is evidently an inspirational figure for young men like Homsi, his dissident activities having earned him a 16-year prison sentence.

Now living in married contentment with his wife, Samira, Saleh bemoans what he terms "torture of a society." Wandering the spectacular devastation of a "liberated zone," which "paradoxically has no inhabitants," he posits that "it's important for a writer to live the situation he writes about." But Saleh and Homsi are both to undergo changes of heart as the film progresses. When Saleh's relatives are arrested in a distant city by the marauding Islamists of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), the duo travel cross-country to his hometown of Raqqa, and eventually onward, across the border, into Turkey.

The second half of the film examines the duo's altered circumstances and conflicted consciences, as they ponder the fate of their colleagues, comrades and loved ones left behind. Samira's fate is a particular cause for concern, as ISIS continues its sweep from city to city. As her husband, Yassin, ruminates ruefully in Istanbul (by this stage we've somewhat lost track of Homsi's precise location and activities), mournful horns creep onto the soundtrack of a work that largely eschews musical accompaniment.

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Among the first cinema works to touch upon the effects of ISIS, a movement that is now a daily feature of international news headlines, Our Terrible Country both benefits and suffers from the intimate access enjoyed by directors Atassi (2010's Waiting for Abu Zaid) and Homsi (Oh Douma, 2012).

The protagonists' transitions from directly engaged participation to strategic withdrawal ("people who want to live should get out") are discreetly if baldly presented, rather than properly analyzed or satisfactorily explored — Yassin's in particular. It's as if overwhelming respect felt by Homsi for the "doctor of the Revolution" subsumes his duties as filmmaker, and a little more authorial distance would have been welcome — but such are the perpetual perils of crossing and recrossing that hazardous borderline between participant and observer.

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Production company: Bidayyat Audio-visual Arts
Directors: Mohammad Ali Atassi, Ziad Homsi
Screenwriter: Mohammad Ali Atassi
Producer: Bidayyat
Executive producer: Christin Luettich
Cinematographers: Ziad Homsi, Saeed al-Batul
Editor: Marwan Ziadeh
Sales: Bidayyat, Beirut

No rating, 83 minutes