Shall I Compare You To A Summer’s Day?

Queer experimental Arab film, a sort of 1001 Nights where two lovers discuss their relationship and those from their past, which spiral out into a web of a community.

Very kinda unique and playful format, utilising song, dance, poetry, animation, direct interviews with camera, and action on green screen. It keeps each narrative suspended in its own space, able to move backwards and forwards in time, but not necessarily linearly, the way a real world dramatisation would. It also feels very unflinching, as people discuss break-ups with those they lost their lovers to, or their exes who still don’t listen to their hurt.

The stories span the gamut of experiences from intensely loving to alienating and indifferent to violent and painful. People struggle with love, sex, commitment, monogamy, polyamory, addiction, recovery, loss and abuse. At times it’s not clear where one experience comes in time or how accurate it is when compared to another’s memory of the same event.

It is very non-judgemental, there’s an unspoken acknowledgement that these are all young men with growing to do, and their shit to sort out. Even when communication is emphasised, the ability to really listen and hear each other remains a struggle. That classic romantic theme of how to understand and be understood by those you love.

The film is neither entirely autobiographical nor fictional. It is an amalgam of the filmmaker’s experiences, and the writers, and the cast who improvised based on their own histories. While firmly Arab and queer, the conflicts and longings are universally recognisable.

Interesting film.

Our Memory Belongs To Us

The film opens with a quote from George Orwell’s 1984, “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past.” Three survivors of the Syrian Revolution, Odai, Rani and Yadan, meet to share their stories. They try to tell what happened in the beginning, when the protests were met with violence, suppression, and state propaganda. Before every world power or extremist group hijacked the narrative for their own ends.

A harddrive was smuggled out of Syria and into the hands of the director. On it were countless hours of film, tracing the very first protests against the Asad regime in the birthplace of the Revolution, the city of Daraa. The majority was shot by a handful of friends, who were just ordinary neighbourhood guys, but were forced by the brutality of the regime to become citizen journalists, documenting the atrocities being inflicted on the people of their community. After 10 years, the director gathers the surviving journalists together to view the footage and put in context the events they show.

It’s a hard watch. These films were not made by career journalists just trying to put together an interesting package for the nightly news. They were filming the arrest, torture, and massacre of their neighbours, their friends. They were filming as an act of survival. And the violence and trauma is something they endured directly. Which is why watching them review the footage is so difficult, watching them relive that trauma. You feel what a sacrifice it is for them to go back over what they shot, how emotionally exhausting. But from that, you understand how important it is for this story to be told right.

Propaganda is something they are keenly aware of. The Assad government held all the power, controlled all the media. Their grainy cameraphone footage floated like balloons up into the ether of the internet, hoping someone would see. The official story was that the army was simply protecting the people from terrorist groups who were killing indiscriminately. The film of unarmed peaceful protestors being fired upon tells otherwise. The images of children playing among the activists, with women dancing, tells of how unthreatening they were. It is only after the authorities begin murdering protestors, Odai, Rani and Yadan join an activist group, and try to hide their faces in their films. But even that can be used by the regime, so they can point to it and say to the West, “See! They are terrorists!”, knowing that brown-skinned men speaking Arabic in balaclavas will always be read as terrorist, no matter how much they are fighting for democracy non-violently, and hiding their identities out of necessity.

When the deaths of innocents start piling up, the handful of personal weapons in the city are donated to be used to protect the protestors when RPGs and tank shells start firing. They are used merely to cover the protestors’ retreat, to give people time to escape unharmed, but again, that’s not the story the regime gives to those images. As the journalists themselves say, they knew where we were firing from, they could have taken the building in minutes, but they let us stay, because we were worth more as images of armed terrorists firing on government forces. They were damned if they do and damned if they don’t, their choices were let the authorities massacre their people with impunity or become fodder for propaganda.

They couldn’t understand how the world would not come to their aid. In those days, before Daesh, before ISIS, before every world power had staked its claim in what Syria represented for their interests, it was ordinary citizens trying to overthrow a notorious, human rights-abusing tyranny. One guy remembers dumping the body of a murdered child on the front of a UN truck, while Kofi Annan, the envoy to Syria, was visiting. He demanded Annan come and speak to the family, and after he did, the military bombed the family home. They even opened fire on the delegation. And he tells Kofi Annan, they are showing you exactly what they are doing, and daring you to do something about it; they are not doing this for my benefit, I see it every day. And in the end, he is astonished to see them leave and no aid being given.

From all the documentaries about Syria I have seen, everyone seems to agree there was this moment, where if there had been the support, things could have gone another way. And instead everything falls to shit. And the remainder of the footage shows the Assad government determined to destroy everything on the face of Syria, and kill every Syrian citizen, if it means they still rule the rubble and bones.

Of particular difficulty is watching the fate of their friend, Abou Nasir, who was with them from the very start, and became a reporter for Al Jazeera under his full name Mohammed Hourani, and who was murdered by a sniper while making a report. He was 33. Many of the films in the movie were of his making. They stand, the three of them watching his face, and you feel the absence of him next to them, as tangible as the presence of a ghost.

A hard watch, but one you feel is owed to both the living and the dead.

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Farha

Jesus fucking Christ.

In the absolute silence that followed the end of this film, an old woman sitting behind me said to her friend, “That is the most terrifying film I have ever seen”. She’s not wrong. Think Come And See vibes.

And the beginning of this film is so sunshiney and lovely, you’d never believe it was going to get so bad. Even knowing that it’s set during the time of Al Nakba, I didn’t expect it to go to the depths it did.

Farha is a 14-year-old girl who is desperate to go to school in the big city. Her father is mayor of a small Palestinian village, and he’s torn between his daughter’s obvious passion for learning, and the thought that keeping her close to home might be safer in these uncertain times. There is such a warmth between the two, a relationship of real love, you find yourself quickly invested in them. Farha’s cousin visits from the big city and they share their hopes of living together as sisters if Farha’s enrollment goes ahead. The film really takes time to establish Farha’s whole world; the green, leafy fig groves, the songs the girls sing, the boy who has a crush on her, her family, her friends, the possibility of marriage and the social life of the community.

The whole world is so fleshed out, that’s why I assumed that even when Al Nakba starts, we would see her travel with and try to keep safe this large cast of characters. But that’s not what happens. The film is based on the real experiences of a woman who survived the Catastrophe. And what happens is Farha refuses to flee and stays by her father’s side. He locks her in a storeroom in the courtyard, promising to return when the shooting stops. And she waits. And she waits. And she waits.

By following Farha’s story as one person living through these horrific events, we are seeing the Catastrophe through a keyhole, both metaphorically and literally. When she is first put inside, I assumed it would only be until nightfall or even a day or so. I thought to myself, “Ah, great way to save on budget! You don’t have to see the bombing and the tanks and the shootings, you can just hear them.” But this is because I underestimated the horror of the situation.

It actually reminded me of Slaughterhouse Five, when people go inside a building, and when they come out, the world has ended. Above the birds circle and say poo-tee-weet. From her place in this claustrophobic entombment, she bears witness to the massacre of innocents and the attempt to erase her people. And with no one she can safely call for help, how will she ever get out?

I’ve seen films telling the story of survivors before, movies like The Cut based on a survivor of the Armenian genocide, and all of them involve travel and movement, escape and getting way. And as horrifying as those stories are, there is some relief as a viewer to know you are leaving those things behind. With Farha, you just have to sit in it, and listen and look as the world ends.

Absolutely horrific.

Scales

Beautiful arthouse horror, like a Saudi Shadow Over Innsmouth. Shot in black and white, the story takes place on this stark rocky island surrounded by an expanse of deadly sea. There, the people survive by sacrificing their firstborn daughters to the sea, in return for favour for the fishermen’s hunt. Until Hayat breaks that tradition.

A dark flavour of magical realism, the film uses gorgeous cinematography rather than dialogue as its main story delivery. The black rippling waves have the same ominous and unnerving effect as the susurrations of the tall grass in the wind in Onibaba. Jumping into the sea is seen as test of manhood and bravery, as though it is jumping into death itself. In the first scene, where fathers take their baby daughters to be sacrificed, the camera sinks below the waves while still gazing up into their expressions of loss, the ripples of the surface seem like the veil of death behind which they are disappearing.

Hayat was meant to be sacrificed by her father, but he so loved her, her couldn’t let her drown, and pulled her from the clutches of whatever is beneath the waves. However, now 12 years later, the time of sacrifice is upon them again. He is expecting his second child, and Hayat’s only hope is that it is a girl, who can take her place.

It is a strange feminist fairytale, where Hayat must decide to takes the reins of her own life, and choose whether and how to survive. Raised as an outcast, she is seen as a curse, an ill-omened thing. The women see her as an affront to the order of things, that her survival is an insult to all they have sacrificed, for their suffering to have meaning it must have been necessary. Even Hayat’s own mother begs her to sacrifice herself, as she fears having to lose her new baby to the sea. Yet Hayat is cool and determined, insistent on her own right to life, as much as any son.

Yet it is a thoroughly ambiguous story, with Hayat longing to become a hunter, like the respected fishermen who bring home catches. But as the scales on her own feet tell, she is just like what they are hunting. The film asks how to escape from this power dynamic of predator and prey, where the only options are to submit to violence or inflict it.

And I can sympathise with those that might come away feeling like the whole thing is too unresolved, too vague. It is a film dealing with symbolism but very few answers. When I first saw the scales on Hayat’s feet, I wondered if it meant she was always destined to be below the waves, but as the film went on, you can see it as her having one foot in either world. Is affinity for the hunters a yearning for a respected position in society, or a survival tactic, or an envy of the ease and status of men, or a queer metaphor? Is Hayat’s effect on her society destructive, or redemptive, or simply anomalous? I liked that openness that is left for discussion and interpretation, but I can see how some might find it frustrating.

Has the gloomy, morphean quality of something like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

Captains of Zaatari

Captains of Zaatari follows the highs and lows of two boys, Fawzi and Mahmoud, as they try to follow their dreams of becoming footballers. They are Syrian refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where there are few opportunities, but football provides a way out.

I’ll be honest, I saw the first few opening shots, with slow motion and plinky-plonky music and I worried the film might be sentimental. But it’s actually surprisingly empowering. It can be difficult showing the hardship of refugee life without it becoming one-note, and robbing refugees of the full roundness of their human existence. Captains of Zaatari shows the heartbreak of separation and exile, the frustration and poverty, but also the friendship, family, and community life of the camp. Fawzi and Mahmoud are still just teenage boys, with crushes on girls, and an obsession with football. And the film doesn’t show them as passive victims of this horrible war and displacement, but with agency in their own lives, having their own goals and pursuing them.

As someone with no interest in football, it is still a compelling film, as you follow the human drama of seeing these boys reach for their dreams, and try to make their families and their people proud. As the talent scouts come to see them play in the camp, and doors open to play in an international sports academy, it is weird to see these kids who play barefoot on gravel be transported to hotels full of jacuzzi baths.

All in all, a really encouraging film, great to see a film where the hope, talent and tenacity of refugees is put front and centre, not just their suffering.

Baba

Beautiful short film Baba is about a queer Libyan who has set their dreams on asylum in the UK, and a life in Manchester’s Canal Street. The night before his interview at the British embassy, he must sneak back into his family home to recover his passport. But events unfold that rock his certain plans.

Entranced by the comparative freedom for queer people in the UK, he bleaches his hair to be ‘like Boris’, paints Union Jacks on his nails, and goes by the name Britannia. He’s met with nothing but rejection by his family and his country in Libya. Living on streets of Tripoli, or more accurately the tunnels under the streets, in hiding beneath the city, nothing could seem more obvious that to apply for asylum in Britain.

However, he needs his passport for the interview at the embassy, and that is in his old family home, a place he has been banished from. With the assistance of his sisters, a couple of queer women he lives with in the tunnels, he makes his way in the dead of night to break in and retrieve the passport. But not everything goes to plan, and he comes face to face with the ghosts of his past.

Really heartrending wee film.

Europa

Europa is about a teenage Iraqi boy trying to reach Europe. I read the film’s synopsis and was immediately interested, but also had a bit of hesitancy about sitting down to watch it, coz I knew it was going to be brutal. And it is, it’s about how traumatising the whole thing is.

I think when you see some people talk about migration in the media, they talk about returning migrants in light tones, like folk are getting off a comfy flight at Gatwick and being told their holiday is cancelled and they’ve to turn around and get back on the next flight home. And yes, that’s usually because the person speaking is deliberately trying to deny, downplay and outright misrepresent the migrant experience for reasons that are about power and racism. But I also think one of the reasons they do that is because the reality is so far removed from their experience, that is the closest thing from their own lives they can imagine. And that goes also for the people who they are trying to talk to, ordinary people in Europe, who have never had to run for their lives to another continent, and have few similar life experiences they can equate it to.

Which is to say, it is wonderful to see a film which is so visceral, that it blows away all that crap. You follow the main character, seeing over his shoulder, or watching his face as he deals with this run for his life. This is not a film with wide shots of open vistas, you can only see as far as the main character can. You have no idea where he is, just as he has no idea where he is. You hope he’s going in the right direction, but you don’t know, and the whole time you have no idea what to expect with every step.

You feel this film in your body. There’s very little dialogue, as keeping quiet and undetected is vital to survival, so scenes are made gripping by conveying the bodily experience. The main character’s hypervigilance, flinching at every sound or movement at the camera edge. His breathing heavy and ragged as he runs, or stifled and controlled as he hides. His utter exhaustion that causes drops to black. His thirst, his hunger, his cuts, his bruises. The difficulty of having to scale mossy rock or drag your way up crumbling stone. Everything feels insurmountable, when tested against nothing but human skin.

The film is set near the Turkish-Bulgarian border, so the terrain is rocky, leafy wood. For me watching it, it’s the kind of landscape associated with gentle walks, something benign. Normally if you are watching someone flee for their life in a hostile landscape, it doesn’t look like that. But Europe is a hostile land, where people like this teenage boy die every day, and it is treated as of no consequence. This is a place where he is a stranger, whose life is worth very little. From border police, to far-right militia patrols, to the local populace, the very sight of him brings the possibility of death.

The idea of enduring all that, knowing at any point he might be caught and returned, that all this horror, trauma and fear, might be for nothing . . . Europa is a film that tries to give people some idea of what this does to people, what it is we are talking about when we talk about returning migrants. It is a brutal film, but one with such a vital job of making seen that which, by its nature, must remain unseen to survive. Excellent movie.

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