It’s said that Syria is the land of assassinated filmmakers, since anyone with a camera or cell phone becomes an instant target for sniper bullets. Director Ossama Mohammed (“Sacrifices”), in exile in Paris since 2011, sifted through thousands of online videos documenting the daily atrocities in his country to make “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait,” a necessary, often unbearable documentary that bears witness to the horrors of the civil war. To this he adds footage by Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a young Kurdish woman in Homs who contacted Mohammed for advice on what to film around her. The combined results, given a structure by chapter-like intertitle headings, will leave no viewer unshaken. Too brutal for TV, this self-portrait will play fests and vid installations.
Young men viciously beaten and humiliated by soldiers; unarmed protestors shot and killed; murdered children in their caskets. It’s all here, in often rough footage made, as Mohammed says in voiceover, by 1,001 Syrians. Yet unlike Scheherazade and her 1,001 nights, the collected films are not tales to distract, but visceral images whose potency demands action. The problem is that no one acts: Governments watch Aleppo, Homs, Daraa, Baniyas and countless other cities burn but, like the Nero of myth, fiddle on about nonintervention and realpolitik while we, the public, skim news stories with mute concern. If only film could make a difference, then “Silvered Water” would possibly spark action, but not even Mohammed can believe in such idealism in a world all too used to standing aside.
So murders continue. Those who call for regime change are stripped and sodomized, filmed by soldiers whose cruelty goes beyond comprehension. Cities are turned to rubble, traumatized refugees flee, children casually remark on grave depths, and the word “freedom” is written in blood on freshly fallen snow. The quality of the footage is often low-resolution and frequently made almost impressionistic by blocky digital tiling. Several times Mohammed returns to the image of a child having its umbilical cord cut, leaving auds to ponder the cycle of life in hell.
He left Syria on May 9, 2011, the anniversary of the day Nazi Germany surrendered to the Soviet Union. Destination: Cannes, not with a film, but as witness and repository of images. Since then he’s been living in Paris, watching postings online while falling into a depression of helplessness. Then he was contacted by Bedirxan, an activist with a camera who wanted to know what she should be filming. The two started an online conversation, with her sending him footage she’d taken as they engaged in a dialogue on the inferno consuming their country.
Bedirxan shoots a lot of scenes with children, always an incongruous notion in bombed-out cities where life, at least young life, isn’t supposed to exist. She’s especially taken by Omar, a charismatic tyke who knows to beware of snipers in the areas he uses as makeshift playgrounds — play is a necessity for child development, though one wonders what kind of development is possible in a place of unspeakable ruthlessness and death. Bedirxan was acting as teacher until an Islamist rebel objected to her lack of head covering — it’s the only mention of the opposition’s hijacking by jihadists, but “Silvered Water” (the translation, from Kurdish, of Bedirxan’s name Simav) isn’t meant to be a documentary about the war. Instead it’s a cry of grief, a witness to the incomprehensible.
Some may question the inclusion of so much footage of children and cats (maimed felines mewling at the camera or walking shakily on three legs). They’re the most obvious sympathy-getters, and perhaps several of them could be removed, though far tougher to sit through is a young boy grieving beside his father’s body, or a tortured corpse’s wounds exposed as documentation of yet one more atrocity. No one even casually reading newspapers should be shocked by any of this, yet we’ve allowed ourselves to live in a cozy bubble where we choose only images tolerable to our sensibilities; Mohammed rightly refuses us such ill-gotten comforts.
Footage is edited using chapter titles to impose a necessary form on such a large amount of material. The device, as well as Mohammed’s voiceover, occasionally feels like video installations in the manner of Lebanese artist Rabih Mroue, and it’s easy to image the film in a gallery format, though the ease with which visitors walk in and out of such exhibitions would betray the power of the accumulation of footage. Sound design is expertly conceived, using some of the direct, rough YouTube sound along with keyboard clatter and other complementary noises.