“Take your broken heart, turn it into art,” said the late Carrie Fisher, distilling a sentiment that has fueled much essential political and protest art across history. Yet the time and headspace to create art is a hard luxury to come by when daily survival is itself a challenge. That’s the tension driving “The Story Won’t Die,” the latest in a long run of documentaries probing the mass displacement of people amid the ongoing Syrian civil war, this time with a particular focus on the musicians, dancers and visual artists caught up in the refugee crisis: Moved to convey their personal and national turmoil in the terms they know best, they find the upheaval and insecurity of refugee life as much a creative hindrance as it is a spur.
Braiding the reflections of nine variously affected individuals on the subject, David Henry Gerson’s film successfully keeps the big picture and the smaller canvas in conscientious balance, disrupting overwhelming tragedy with more hopeful flashes of invention and inspiration. That blend of art, activism and human interest should help this recent Hot Docs premiere attract the attention of distributors and broadcasters amid a sea of comparably themed documentaries, though “The Story Won’t Die” largely avoids glib, crowd-pleasing uplift: As its subjects repeatedly point out the strains and pressures of everyday life in self-determined exile, any moments of beauty and levity feel duly hard-won.
“Art can talk about politics, but politics cannot talk about art,” says Tammam Azzam, a visual artist who has found sanctuary, like a number of the film’s subjects, in Berlin — though not before an arduous period of living in limbo that the film documents in tense shorthand, wandering through the uninviting passages of various European refugee camps. If Azzam’s quote, on the face of it, threatens an air of lofty self-importance, it’s swiftly tempered with more ruefully self-aware musings — from Azzam and his peers — on the artist’s battle to maintain a sense of motivation and purpose against a vast, seemingly endless war that no amount of protest seems to quell.
“I cannot stay there. There’s nothing useful for me to do,” says musician Anas Maghrebi of his decision to leave Syria for the safety of Berlin — though the flipside, for several of the film’s subjects, is that distance brings with it a sense of disconnection from their homeland’s troubles. In Europe, they may be freer to express themselves with impunity, but is the relevant audience there to hear? “It destroys you from the inside, rather than the outside,” says Abu Hajar, a fiery young rapper whose socially conscious songs landed him in hot water with the Syrian authorities before he, too, made his way to the German capital. Still, he interrupts his melancholy with a pragmatic shrug: A sense of placelessness beats jail time any day.
Hajar is the most immediately charismatic of the film’s artistic ensemble, as well as the most bluntly dynamic in his performance footage. The downside of the crisply shaped 83-minute run time is that its shyer personalities inevitably get shorter shrift, though the array of creators Gerson has chosen are pleasingly diverse in style and outlook. Hajar’s pithy rhymes work in effective contrast to the more mellow, plaintive stylings of Maghrebi’s traditionally influenced folk. Among the visual artists, Azzam’s massive canvases of Syrian urban ruin — pointedly merged with familiar motifs from the Western artistic canon — are vastly different in scope and symbolic impact from the featured work of Paris-based Diala Brisly, which scars children’s book-style illustration with traces of violence and trauma.
Modern dancer M.H.D. Sabboura and choreographer Medhat Aldaabal unsurprisingly get the doc’s most cinematic showcases, as DP Luise Schröder’s camera steps back to give them fluid freedom of movement. In one vivid sequence, Sabboura darts and backflips across a beachside spread of debris from sundry refugees’ travels: Vibrant life thus springs from what has been left behind. Simple and unadorned in construction, “The Story Won’t Die” generously and compassionately observes its subjects’ fevered creative flow without appropriating any of it as its own: For many, across miles and years of stress and separation, art is all they’ve managed to carry with them.