CANNES, France: An old man’s white hair suddenly changes to red in “Eau Argentee, Syrie autoportrait” (Silvered Water, Syria self-portrait) by exiled Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed, shown at the Cannes film festival Thursday. The amateur video may be shaky, grainy and lacking peripheral view, but the viewer instantly knows the man has just been shot in the head, another victim of the civil war in Syria that has already claimed more than 150,000 victims.
This and countless other images of the conflict are woven together in the documentary by Mohammed, who left his country in May 2011 for Paris over fears for his safety.
The film is brutal, visceral and hard to watch.
“Since I left Syria,” Mohammed says in a voiceover, “I’ve become a coward.” His film, however, is a courageous and must-be-seen living document about the destruction of a country, a people under siege and the power of reportage.
Plagued by guilt for having left his countrymen at a time of crisis, Mohammed turned to amateur clips uploaded to YouTube to see what was happening at home. His film is a patchwork composite of the powerful fragments he found.
Key among them are images filmed by a young Kurdish woman living in Homs whom he met in an online chat. “Simav” (Wiam Simav Bedirxan) begins to film what she sees as her city is transformed into a pile of rubble.
“For the regime,” Simav says, “a camera is a weapon.” Her images and those by other witnesses risking their lives to document their Syria are a scathing indictment of President Bashar Assad’s Baath regime.
The film shows the destruction of Syria’s once-busy, third-largest industrial city, along with images of killings, guerrilla warfare and torture.
A man on his knees is beaten and kicked as he is forced to kiss a poster of Assad; another, his eyes covered and his feet and wrists bound, is suspended in the air from a rake; a naked teenager huddled in the corner of a cell is kicked and sodomized with an object by soldiers.
Even the animals bear signs of cruelty and deprivation: cats with half their face missing, limping and burned animals, a skinny kitten whose mewing goes unnoticed in an abandoned Homs.
Accorded a special screening by the prestigious 12-day festival on the French Riviera, the film is one of several to bring the chaos and barbarity of current events to the big screen. Sergei Loznitsa’s “Maidan,” a documentary about the uprising in Kiev’s Maidan Square, will be screened next week.
“Timbuktu” by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako is a fiction film about how, during the short-lived 2012 regime of Al-Qaeda-linked militants, Malian rebels imposed their version of Islamic law on an uncomprehending local population, which ultimately provoked France’s military intervention.
Arab fighters (distinguished from Malians by their skin color and language) patrol the town with loudhailers, announcing a host of repressive new laws banning smoking, and ordering women to wear socks.
“Everything is forbidden,” one shouts through his speaker.
A female fish seller is dragged away after complaining about their order to cover her hands with gloves. For an unknown infraction of Shariah law, we see a man and a woman buried up to their necks and stoned to death.
Despite the tension, moments of grace flow through Sissako’s film, like the group of young men who play football without an actual ball to circumvent the ban on sport, or the woman who breaks into song while being whipped for singing.
Far from caricatures, the jihadists are portrayed as three-dimensional beings displaying moments of sensitivity, caring and even humor.
“I think it’s important to realize that a jihadist is a human being,” Sissako said at a news conference. “They’re fragile, yet at the same time a person who treats people badly may sometimes be racked with doubt.”
Sissako choked up while explaining his film, whose main characters, a peaceful man and his wife and daughter, find their lives turned upside down after the Islamists’ arrival.
“The real courage is to be found with those who live this on a daily basis, not just one day or two, but for a long time. And they wage a silent combat, which is a real combat waged by humankind. That’s where the optimism lies in the film.”