“Syria Mon Amour,” the Japan title of “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait,” is a direct homage to Alan Resnais’ 1959 classic antiwar movie “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and reflects a desire on the part of the two-person distribution team to put the film in a Japanese context. The original title, however, is derived from Simav — “silvered water” in Arabic — the first name of co-director Wiam Simav Bedirxan, who, living in Syria, filmed much of the movie’s content.
As cinematic fare, “Silvered Water” is a hard sell: a documentary of the brutalities and casualties of Syrian War compiled from YouTube videos combined with Bedirxan’s footage and edited by Syrian director Ossama Mohammed. No matter how hard you brace yourself, the film will shred your nerves, wring your heart dry and leave you enveloped by a sadness so pervasive you’ll be left speechless.
There are teenagers and young men subjected to indescribable acts of atrocity, often filmed by the soldiers committing them; children’s corpses, wrapped in sheets and awaiting cremation; animals, maimed by relentless bombings, wandering amid rubble. Testament to the immense cruelty capable by humankind and, to a lesser degree, the resilience of the human spirit, “Silvered Water” is without doubt a harrowing experience — but for anyone fortunate to be in an industrialized nation, it’s an essential one.
Encompassing those horrors are two personal journeys: one man’s entrapment by bystander guilt and a young woman’s search for freedom in dire circumstances. Mohammed left his country in 2011 to attend a cinema event in Paris when unrest, violence and civil uprising was erupting on the streets of Homs. His trip was scheduled for a week but he was warned that if he returned, he would be killed.
“For five years, I have been an exile,” Mohammed said, talking from Paris in a recent Skype interview. “I have lived with the guilt of having escaped the war.” Co-director Bedirxan, who has been described by many in the European press as the “real director,” however, refused repeated offers to live in France. “She said no,” explained Mohammed. “She kept saying she doesn’t belong here, that her place is not here but in Syria.”
Alhough Mohammed has given multiple interviews to the Western press, Bedirxan chooses to remain out of sight and is virtually impossible to reach. She’s currently living in a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border and involved in the establishment of a school for children, mostly the orphaned who are in desperate need of some semblance of order.
“Trying to build a school was what she was doing when she and I first started talking,” said Mohammed. “And now she is continuing that work.”
The two first came into contact when Mohammed was sifting through YouTube footage of the fighting and massacres going on in his home country. Using social media, Bedirxan contacted him and asked “You are Ossama the filmmaker?” When Mohammed replied that he was, she explained that she had a camera and wanted advice on what she should be filming in Syria.
It was 2013 and Bedirxan was offering to film in Homs, effectively putting herself in the line of fire, knowing that anyone wielding a camera, or even a cellphone, was at risk of being gunned down by snipers. In fact, many of the YouTube visuals used in “Silvered Water” were taken by people who were killed afterward.
“For Simav the war was a life-altering experience,” said Mohammed. “She was a young Kurdish woman from a conservative family and, up until the siege, she had never left the family fold. But then everything became chaos and the old traditions no longer meant anything. Simav left her family and struck out on her own.”
It was these drastic changes, said Mohammed, that compelled Bedirxan to film her surroundings and also stay in Syria: “She said, ‘I don’t want to cut myself off from my own experiences. In Paris, I can do nothing. In Syria, I can work, film, express myself. In Paris, I would be just another refugee.’ ”
Mohammed suggested that they collaborate on a book project of her day-to-day experiences during the siege and war, but she declined that too, telling him: “Having actually lived through it, I don’t have the energy left to relive the whole thing over again.”
“She lost so much but gained a few, precious pieces of treasure, mainly the right to self-expression,” said Mohammed remarking on the rare spark of hope that has come out of “Silvered Water.” “The revolution gave her that chance. She became free, for the first time in her life.”
For his part, Mohammed remains imprisoned in guilt and his own quandary of existence in exile.
When “Silvered Water” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, audiences broke down in tears and many covered their eyes. Unsurprisingly, the same response occurred at the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival in last year. Whether the Japan title will encourage more cinemagoers to view a subject that’s both remote and difficult, remains to be seen, but as it stands Japan has become the first and currently the only Asian nation to pick up documentary for nationwide distribution.
“Syria Mon Amour” (“Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait”) opens June 18 at the Theater Image Forum in Shibuya, before opening in theaters nationwide.