Three of the documentaries I saw last week at the True False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri showed political unrest and/or the horrors of war in Egypt, Ukraine, and Syria. All three are intriguing films that provide us with the kind of firsthand accounts we can’t expect to get from mainstream journalism.
The film that will perhaps stay with me the longest – of all the movies I saw at True/False – is “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait,” a documentary by Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan. Using a mix of images taken from the Internet, including footage by torturers of their horrific handywork, and footage shot by Simav, this film includes some of the most heart-wrenching scenes I have ever seen.
Besides the torture, we see dead, bloody children, maimed cats, and buildings reduced to rubble. In one segment, Simav films a very young boy, who is concerned about snipers as he walks to place flowers on his father’s grave.
Ossama, who is living in Paris, put the film together from the found footage and what Simav sent him via the Internet. Some of the Skype conversations between the two of them were also included. Their existential discussions bring a surprising poetry to the film that I found enormously moving.
After the screening, Ossama spoke to the audience via Skype from Paris and had this to say about the brave Simav: “She is creating a small school in a tent, trying to teach children. Just a very important detail that tells a lot that she’s teaching them English. I like very much this choice because I think psychologically, she gave them English just to feel that it’s a step to the world, to open the window as much as possible.”
It’s a very difficult movie to watch, but I do think it’s an important one that shows the truth of what Syrians are enduring every day. That said, I don’t know when the film might be available for audiences to see. Below is the trailer, but be warned – there are a couple of images here that some will not be able to handle.
“I Am the People,” a film by Anna Roussillon (who was visiting the U.S. for the first time at the festival), gives us a glimpse of the Arab Spring through the eyes of people in a rural area near Luxor, Egypt. The main character is a farmer named Farraj, who is university educated. We see how he and his family and community live, and we listen to their opinions about the election in Egypt, as they watch footage of the demonstrations in Cairo on their television.
We also see their difficulties in getting gasoline and in maintaining reliable electricity. In a fitting ending to the film, the television goes out yet again. Unlike the other two films, there is no sense of danger for the family in the movie, but it’s an interesting slice of life during a transitional time in their country.
Unfortunately, Anna has no distribution for the film in the U.S., so I don’t know when or if there will be an opportunity for people outside of the festival circuit to see it.
“Maidan” is a film that provides no voiceover and only an occasional placard with information. The majority of it consists of footage showing what it was like to be at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (which means “Independence Square”), the central square in Kiev, Ukraine, during the demonstrations in late 2013 and early 2014 against Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russia regime.
The film starts with a moving scene of a crowd in the square singing the Ukrainian national anthem together. I was told by another journalist who saw the film in Ukraine that everyone in the theater stood up and sang the anthem with the people in the film.
We see people camping out in a nearby school and building barriers around the square to protect them against the police. They use big sand bags and tires to create makeshift walls, but many are shot anyway after laws against protests are passed by the government. In one scene, we see coffins passed among the protesters filled with their dead loved ones, as the people chant, “Glory to the heroes! Heroes never die!”
While Yanukovych’s regime was indeed toppled as a result of the protests, we know that Ukraine still struggles to be a free and independent nation. “Maidan” was directed by Sergei Loznitska, but it was cinematographer Sergiy Stefan Stetsenko who was able to appear for the Q&A in Missouri with the help of a translator.
“If you were paying attention in the film, you were not able to see one character, one personality, or one politician. It was a portrait of the birth of a nation,” Sergiy said.
In the words of the translator after Sergiy answered a question in Ukrainian: “They did not know that the events would unfold as they would have. Until 22nd of February, this movie would not have been able to be released. If it were, the people who were in the movie, in the shots, in the scenes would have been sent to prison.”
Was Sergiy afraid? Here is how his translator conveyed his answer: “He is human, so he was afraid for his safety. For the first time in his life, there were grenades five meters away from him, but he understood that if he were to leave Maidan, and if all the people were to leave Maidan, Ukraine would cease to be independent and become a colony of Russia.” This comment received applause from the audience.
As for the situation in Ukraine today, Sergiy said, “There are politicians who are in power right now who are not necessarily Ukrainian-minded, who are working for Russia.” Take a look below at the trailer for this moving and brave film. Hopefully, it will be made available for viewing before long.