One of the most essential documentaries of the last few years, Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s aggressively personal Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait stands out for its raw directness and pained indirectness. Mohammed is a Syrian living in exile in Paris, and living in exile he has assembled a diary-essay-portrait-biography of the turmoil which has bloodied his country and people since 2011, made of video clips found online. “1001 images of Syria, shot by 1001 Syrians...and me,” he tells us, in text and later a plaintive, occasional voice-over. And if this is a reference to Scheherazade’s heroic storytelling delay tactic, one wonders what each video, each image of Mohammed’s is delaying. The end of the war? His return home?
The videos are mostly horrendous, and despite being so plenteous and so removed from specific context—except for a few and extremely powerful sequences gripped by the filmmaker’s knowledge of on-screen victims—the first half of the documentary, which is primarily made up of this found footage montage, creates a deeply arresting image by image, clip by clip experience of human suffering, resistance, and lamentation. The videos range from government abuses and triumphs to both Syrian military and civilian suffering, torturing, bullet wounds, thundering protests, wailing individuals and blood splashes—so much blood running so often and shot in such bad quality it resembles abstract expressionist painting more than documentary recordings. The video quality is variable but exciting: frames skipped, color blown out, whirling points of view, warping streets pulsating with chaotic activity and equally chaotic image clarity. It’s a YouTube palimpsest, a meta mise en scène imagining, creating a whole, distant, deeply suffering world through dispersed fragments. In a voice-over, Mohammed chastises a young man for his shaky camerawork, saying that a still frame can be beautiful. But there is no still frame in Silvered Water, and the man who received that advice is now dead.
These are not rare images for us, now used to the 24-hour news cycle’s endless stream of amateur and participatory video footage from “Middle Eastern tumult,” and such splotchy, violent imagery has already tragically achieved the sensation, so stale and distanced, that World War 2 archival footage has after years of play and replay. Such footage now seems abstracted from its function as record and become simply emblematic of a certain time, place and aspect of conflict. But the assumed grab bag nature of Silvered Water’s selection is quickly contradicted, and the assembly, held tentatively by a ruminating voice-over and more directly with sorrowful music, makes each Syrian moving image a moving image, one capable of moving again. Mohammed stitches these together, crowd-sourced, quivering images, into a lamenting burst of anger and horror, each image obviously a “drop of water” and “silvered;” that is, bright but fleet and instantly gone. He is an exile trying to come to grips, remotely, with what he’s seeing on television, on the Internet, and shared, no doubt, by friends: how to relate to the world—your world, your friends—through these common, terrible images.
Introducing an essential dialectical element to the film, Mohammed’s powerful found footage essay is gradually woven into new footage shot on the ground during the siege of Homs by co-director Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a woman whose Kurdish name gives the film its title. She and Mohammed begin a correspondence, one of words but also presumably of video, he from afar in Paris and she walking the besieged streets in Syria, wandering among exploding buildings, deserted streets, and with young children in “revolutionary” schoolrooms. Her footage, more solitary, high-definition, less violent and more diary-like than than the piecemeal shotgun blast of images from Mohammed’s collection, feels like a direct extension of her sight, sensations and thoughts. Less pointed (and loaded) then the “key” sequences of the Mohammed’s montage, nevertheless Bedirxan’s images, when alongside or feathered into the found footage, speaks of filming as living, the camera “seen as a weapon by the regime.”
Her footage is not of protests or bloody deaths but of the interiors, city corners, injured street cats, and young children that make up her daily, isolated life, “images,” she says, “that flee into my small camera.” Mohammed, despite some desperate-feeling footage shot in Paris, fundamentally seems to have no camera, only eyes and videos. The two, Bedirxan and Mohammed, trade longings and self-doubts, each somewhat talking to themselves, images as monologues. But when placed next to or within the work of the other, the film forms a kind of larger scale correspondence between the two, of exile and besieged, man and woman, Syrian and Kurd. He speaks of different kinds of cinema, cinema of “realism,” of “the marvelous,” of “murder,” “the poetic,” and of “fantasy.” He speaks of cinema of murderers, and of cinema of victims. Implicitly, what he speaks of and what he and Bedirxan have made is a cinema of witnessing and of experiencing, of nearness and distance, and of exile and of homeland.