NYFF 2014: ‘Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait’ Is an Essential Essay on Violence, Civil War and New Cinema

Les Films d'Ici

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait begins with a revolution and a circumcision. The former is the Syrian Uprising that erupted in the spring of 2011 in the wake of revolutions in Egypt and around the Middle East. The latter is a bit more eccentric, a home movie of filmmaker Ossama Mohammed’s own circumcision. He has chosen to start his film with two instances of bloodshed, albeit at the farthest opposite points on the spectrum of violence. The footage of a baby being ritualistically brought into the world is placed into the context of a nation trying to birth itself anew. Mohammed characterizes the people of Syria as both freedom fighters and videographers, poetically asserting that his film is assembled from 1,001 images taken by 1,001 cameras. The dawn of the revolution is the dawn of cinema itself, created in a single near-biblical moment.

That said, Silvered Water is not a collaboration between over a thousand people, but rather just two. Mohammed co-directed the film with Kurdish activist and filmmaker Wiam Simav Bedirxan, he from the safety of Paris, she from the war-torn city of Homs. They exchange messages, their correspondence running over the images like the voice over in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. Their dialogue meanders through politics, art, memory and the immediate pressures of survival. All the while the civil war is raging around them, loosely chronicled by Mohammed through the use of videos taken by soldiers and citizens.

First and foremost this is a film about Syria, its people and its history. The Assad regime is not allowed to stand in for the nation itself. The rise of the dictatorial house is touched upon, archival footage displaying the cult of personality that was built under Hafez al-Assad back in the 1970s. These unsettling images of parades, public displays of affection for a despot, are explained as the worship of peace and survival, the compromises of those living under totalitarianism.

The much deeper well of Syrian history acts as counterpoint to this troubling recent past. Mohammed gestures toward ancient Syria with a recording of the very first written melody ever discovered, a Hurrian hymn from over 3,000 years ago. This place and its people are much older than a single ruler or conflict, allowing for inextinguishable hope. “Syria is a mother, and a mother gathers,” says one of the filmmakers, asserting the coexistence and potential collaboration of millions.

These juxtapositions are not solely nationalist, either. The correspondence between Bedirxan and Mohammed mixes ideas, influences and languages with an existential ease. She shows her life in Homs, reading a book and listening to Edith Piaf while the city is shelled by the Syrian Army. These strange oases of philosophy and international communication are placed alongside images of death and torture, inserting human experience into this humanitarian crisis without concealing its brutality. The infernal opposite of Marker’s Japanese cat temple in Sans Soleil is a sequence in Silvered Water on the cats of Homs, tattered and mewling in the street.

What it adds up to is cinema, pure and impossibly complex at the same time. It is drawn from 21st century technology, cell phone cameras with their unfriendly aspect ratios and the electronic sounds of Skype calls and Gchat conversations. Bedirxan and Mohammed discuss language, translating between Arabic and Kurdish. The exchange of these ideas is as much a central theme as the ideas themselves. Whose images are these, what do they mean, and how do we interpret them? Like many great documentary essay films, Silvered Water poses more questions than it answers. A video taken by a government torturer of his victim does more than shock the audience into outrage. It presents killers as filmmakers, using the same tools as the rebels to document the same violence, but from an entirely different perspective.

The entire nation has become a filmmaker. Silvered Water is deeply personal, its most intimate moments shared by Bedirxan and a young boy with whom she wanders the bombed out boulevards of Homs. It is profoundly tied to a specific community, bleeding for a nation with its insistence on including the most brutal images of the conflict. It is spiritually, essentially universal in its reliance on surreal metaphor and international correspondence. All of this is cinematic because Mohammed and Bedirxan believe in cinema, a cinema that has been born in their cleft nation. The Syrian Civil War has become, as Mohammed puts it, “history’s longest film and its longest funeral.” Silvered Water may not capture the distilled essence of violence and tragedy, but it is revolutionary and essential in its pursuit.

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait screens this week at the New York Film Festival. See here for more details.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.