Confronting Media Representation

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait offers the audience an intimate perspective of the war torn city of Homs. Wiam Bedirxan and Ossama Mohammed have taken the first-hand footage shot by Syrian’s and activists to create a portrait that places the human before the political. Whilst the international mainstream news media continues to report on the violent events that have come to define our impression of Syria, their approach is one that instils a sense of anger in the film’s co-director Mohammed. Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait is a testament to cinema as a tool of free-expression, and one that embraces collaboration even in the worst of times. In conversation with Aesthetica, Mohammed speaks of cinema as an impossible dream come reality, a tool that can confront media representation and the odyssey of Silvered Water that remains difficult to express.

ASFF: What has drawn you to film as a means of creative or artistic expression?
OM: First of all I was never thinking of going into the cinema – to even dream about it was impossible. But when I wasn’t at school I would be in the theatre. We were a poor family and we didn’t even have a TV at home. I chose to be in the street, in the heart of the life and I was educated by my sisters and brothers. I learned from them the link between beauty and justice, and the question of justice was very important to me. I had the illusion that I could save humanity and I’d put myself in danger a lot of the time to defend that which I find children trust in. My education was not far off human rights values even though I didn’t know that it even existed as a declaration at the time.

When I went to Sienna it was just by chance – I’d refused to study engineering. I didn’t think it was important and I was stupid enough to think it was just feathering money, a stupid way of life. Then when I had the opportunity to study film the main thing was this question of the relationship between justice and guilt. The first time I was only thinking about the struggle against injustice and then I had a moment  where my imagination was full of poetry – a game of my youth was that we would read poems and learn them off by heart. I found cinema to be a force of magic and beauty, and I like to say that cinema is not a mirror of reality – it is additional truth and knowledge because of the images. The image is full of time; it is multi time. If we can reach the moment to feel the tools of images in life, or to retell them in cinema, then it will be much more than information and propaganda, and much more than a mirror. For me this is the great side of cinema.

ASFF: Cinema has the strength of presence to counter the perspective of the world that is cultivated by the mainstream news media. Your reference to the “additional truth” infers cinema as having the potential to access and share an otherwise lost truth.
OM: I was very angry about the way the media was approaching Syria in the beginning. I was just seeking a few seconds to see our peaceful demonstrations, to see the identity of Syrian culture and people demonstrating for justice, freedom and human rights. But the media was just focusing on political conflicts, on the stupid question: “What’s going to happen if Assad is not here? Who will be in his place? Whilst discussing the political issues there were a 100,000 civilian victims. I hope a few of us can reach this question of what is the psychological damage to the human? What is the reality of these psychological moments? What happens to the human? That was the main question for me and that is what cinema can reach, if it is real cinema.

The Syrian individual who decided to stay, knew he was in total danger but knew he could just take a step. This feeling inside, this dream is the moment when the Syrian common person, the girl or boy belong to humanity, to the war, to all of the history of the dreams of a human being. It was in this moment that we were deeply inner-connected with you, with the other and those that were working for a thousand years to create the Declaration of Human Rights. It is a universal text written by all of civilisation. It was this moment that cinema could deal with, to not just describe who was shooting against who, to not jump in within two days and say, “It’s civil war” when in the beginning it was a war against civilians.

ASFF: How has the experience of Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait transformed you?
OM: I don’t know exactly what happened, but it was a huge and strange odyssey. First I decided to watch all of the filmed material. I had to see everything because when I was finished I knew I would not forgive myself if I found some great moment that spoke of artistic value, even if it were tragic. I was very silent with myself and I don’t know what happened to me – maybe I’ll discover it later. I was silenced because whilst you watch this material and create a distance, you also have to create a deep feeling because it has to find the harmony, the musicality of the material. For me it was musical and yet at the same time it was very hard because of the violence against people. Sometimes I cried, but I had adapted to undertake this mission of making the film. I think something changed inside of me and maybe I am know a little quieter than I was before.

What also changed me is the belief that cinema is a great movement and it’s not a static moment. You can’t look to this material as something filmed by amateurs or unimportant people, or that it’s just a mobile phone. I respect this work and respect the feeling in each second and each minute, and I had a very hard time because I could feel what those people were feeling. I knew what they were feeling and so all of that made me a little bit quiet. This is not a good word, but I am thinking a lot and the tragedy is very tough. There’s nothing to add … That’s what I can say.

Paul Risker

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait is available on MUBI from today.

1. Stills from Usama Muhammad and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (2014). Courtesy of the filmmakers.