FestBeat: Storytelling vs. the state at Panorama (day 5)

I was very excited to go see Yasmin Fedda’s Queens of Syria (2014) yesterday. The day before, at about 9:30 pm local time, I read that it had just won the Taint de bronze in the official documentary competition of the 26th Carthage Film Festival.

Fedda also won the Safi Faye CREDIF prize, which acknowledges a young female Arab or African director who shows ambition and distinction in her work. Two prizes at one festival is a huge accomplishment, but Fedda has been a powerful voice in documentary filmmaking, especially in our region, for sometime now. Queens of Syria is her latest film and fortunately for Cairo it screens as part of the Crossroads section in this year’s Panorama.

Fedda films 50 or so (the number dwindles with time) Syrian refugee women in Amman as they prepare for a theatrical production of Euripides’ tragedy The Trojan Women. Written in 415 BC, this Greek play is the one in which the women of Troy lament their losses as their houses are destroyed and their husbands and children killed in the Trojan war. Many Syrian women today are suffering in much the same way now due to the ongoing war in their country. It is not just fiction, as one woman points out in the film, it is all so similar to the experience of living through this war.

Fedda’s camera rarely leaves the performance space, whether the rehearsal room or the stage. This space grows to become like a storytelling circle from bygone times, when people would sit around a bonfire and share memories and wisdom. In many communities everyone participated, there was no designated historian or archivist, and these circles were the only way they could maintain a history and identity. Memories thus remained part of lived experience rather than a sterile discipline, detached from lived everyday life and emotions, as past events documented in History (with a capital H) books.

As each woman leaves the chorus to tell us her own story, the camera faces her in what is called in film parlance “theatrical frontally.” We listen as she bears witness to the atrocious Syrian war. Each woman interweaves her own stories with those of the Trojan women. One woman tells us the story of her father, who was detained only days after undergoing major surgery. Another narrates the anger and despair she felt when she was threatened at gunpoint to turn in her brother.

The camera in this film becomes a tool that records history, but history as it was before History. If the modern state, with all its bureaucracy and fantasies of control, has mastered the art of separating memories from the bodies and hearts that have lived them in order to create a historical canon that preserves an authoritative vision of the “nation,” we find the camera here in defiant opposition.

In documenting the witness as she bears testimony, the camera brings a powerful multiplicity of meaning that only images can achieve, an anachronism and organic flow of life, to the archive. In the past couple of years Arab artists across multiple media have explored alternative techniques of preserving memory and history beyond state institutions. They turned to art galleries to create alternative histories, and now the cinema. Film has the potential to renew the uniquely power-defying bonds that were formed during those early circles of storytelling.

Financing is an issue for independent filmmakers around the world but particularly in Arab countries. Thinking about its financing model is key in my opinion to understanding what Queens of Syria is attempting to do as a documentary film. In addition to a British Council grant (UK) and a SANAD Abu Dhabi Film fund (UAE), Queens of Syria was crowdfunded using Indiegogo. Crowdfunding films is relatively new practice, one that brings a whole new force to film’s potential to create and sustain a sense of community, shared experience and, in this case, collective memory.

Queens of Syria is a phenomenal film that is very much worth experiencing. I would have really liked the director to be present for the Q&A, but she could not make it. It screens again today, November 30 at 3:45 pm at Karim Cinema and on December 2 at 10:30 am at Zawya.

Also make sure to check out Letter to the King (Hisham Zaman, 2014), also in the Crossroads section, which won the best screenplay at Carthage Film Festival fiction competition. It screens today at 6.45 pm at Zawya and on December 1 at 6.45 at Karim.

The Panorama of the European Film screens through December 5. See the full program here and our brief guide here.

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