"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

FESTIVAL/Berlinale 2015 Expanded - La Dolce Siria (Ammar al-Beik)

Sunday, 22 March 2015 17:07

Lulu Shamiyya

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF IMAGES

I should be writing about Fellini and the symbolism behind his circus; about the lion whose name, rendered into Arabic, evokes “Assad”, the Syrian president who has turned his country into a circus of daily horrors. There is so much to say about Ammar al Beik’s grotesque, heartbreaking La Dolce Siria.

Yet, despite such a visually-sophisticated and symbolically-charged film I can’t take my eyes off a very simple sequence, perhaps the simplest of all. Two little boys play with a camera, sitting on a shadowed balcony in the midst of summertime. But that could not possibly be a shadowed balcony in any given place of planet earth. For that's Aleppo 2012, and the cruel geography of time and space says it all: Aleppo 2012 is no longer Aleppo. It has been turned into a “document”: one of those places described by George Didi-Huberman that function as living witnesses of their own destruction. Places that are impossible to visit, places where nothing is to be seen anymore. 

La dolce SiriaStill, the two little boys play with the camera. They are trying to understand its way of functioning, its inner mechanism; what the hell that tool can be used for. One of them gives up pretty quickly: his attention is caught by a sound of a rocket which passes over Aleppo’s skies.  “Mum, mum”, the little boy cries in the most spontaneous reaction to fear and insecurity. His brother seems more stubborn. He tries to grab the camera with his little hands in order to open it;  he lifts it for a second, then concludes: “taqile!” (it’s heavy). The camera falls on the floor. 

A sequence before, a bomb falls from the top of the sky down to planet earth, straight onto Syria. It’s Aleppo 2012, again. A couple of guys dressed in military fatigues smile at the camera. The camera moves quickly;  it's most likely a mobile camera, it carries the lightness of a selfie. A wide open aerial view: Aleppo is just a topography when the guys finally decide to throw the bomb down. The camera moves around with elegance and lightness, Aleppo down there is a set of over-saturated pixels. The bomb is light, too; from up in the skies to down into the hell of Syria its trajectory is full of grace, as it were performing a ballet adagio

Down on planet earth, the two little boys are still trying to understand how the camera works. Before hearing the sound of the camera film rolling, they actually hear the rocket being launched. Its sound is as charming and intriguing as that of the camera film. 

Ammar al Beik’s film bears the lightness of that bomb being thrown from up in the skies; and the heaviness of the camera, the physicality of the children's little hands trying to unveil its inner mechanism. In his “dolce Siria” death is light and easy to manage; death is a matter of a frame. Death is decomposable and analyzable in frames; as much as Fellini’s Clowns can be scientifically decomposed and analyzed by film critic Adriano Aprà whose voice-over we hear throughout La Dolce Siria. The average shot length in Fellini's movie is slightly more than 7 seconds, Aprà remarks while commenting the Clowns

 

How long does a shot take to capture death, I ask myself while watching La dolce Siria.

 

As if he had heard my question, a male voice in formal Arabic replies, commenting on a Scud missile precision, and on its capacity to kill indistinctly. We can break the ability to kill into frames/fragments, come up with statistical probabilities, and analyze it; as much as we do with a film text. Even such a film as Fellini’s Clowns, which rejects all sorts of classification and finds an escape in the realm of dreams, can still be decomposed and narrated through its shots and their length. So it is death in Syria, which is now told through pixels and shots made with cameras whose task was once that of denouncing injustice and witnessing the people's rise against oppression. 

 

Have we dreamt of the Syrian people rising up against their dictator? Have we dreamt of the Syrian people staging streets protests and chants, of them boldly throwing down statues of Assad father and son? Was it in our dreams that we saw a tank being turned, in a festive atmosphere full of joy and hope, into a kids' swing? Was it our Fellini's circus, a childhood memory that we are not ready to give up to in the hardness of our adult life... or was it reall? 

 

As Aprà severely reminds us, even a documentary sequence can be staged; it can be staged to the point that viewers would be willing to believe it. Similarly, the Arabic voice-over adds, fiction is  so powerful that it can be turned into an historical document; such is the case of Fellini’s Clowns which we keep and preserve so to keep and preserve our daydreaming. Likewise, the 1987 space trip of Syrian astronaut Mohammed Fares will stay in the Syrian people's memory. Nobody will ever forget him chatting with Syrian president Hafez Assad from the outer space. Nobody will ever forget him longing for his country, the most beautiful ever on planet earth: “la dolce Siria”.

The same country that now gets Scud missiles and barrel bombs with the unbearable lightness of a 7 seconds shot; the same country where film cameras are heavier than any military equipment, and can sentence you to death in a time frame shorter than any of those analyzed by Adriano Aprà. 

 

Ammar al Beik doesn’t show the YouTube footage where the Syrian astronaut finally defects, leaving the daydreaming of Hafez and Bashar Assad’s Syria to embrace the revolt against the oppressor who once was his patron. Yet he clearly suggests that too many frames are missing from the story, from Syria’s story and history. His children are still learning how to manage a camera, while bombs are being dropped at a frame per second speed, pushed down by the unbearable lightness of us human beings.

 

 

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