"For me, art is the moment of discovering new millimeters"
- FLMTQ Interview
Ossama Mohammed is a Syrian screenwriter, cinematographer and film director. His first two films serve as both meditations on the ripples of generational conflicts within families, and merciless indictments of the Baathist dictatorship that has controlled Syria since 1963, when it came to power in a military coup. Mohammed's debut film Stars in Broad Daylight (1988) premiered in Cannes' Quinzaine des Réalisateurs and won the FIPRESCI Prize in Valencia. His 2002 film The Box of Life premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard and won the Special Prize of the Jury at the Paris Biennal of Arab Cinema. His latest film, Silvered Water: Syria Self Portrait premiered in Cannes' Official Selection 2014.
Ossama Mohammed has been living in exile in Paris since 2011. In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Mohammed discusses cinema as historical archive, the link between justice and beauty, and how to make an auteur film with one thousand authors.
FILMATIQUE: Before approaching Silvered Water, could you tell us a bit about yourself as an artist and as a filmmaker? When and how did you decide to express yourself via the medium of film?
OSSAMA MOHAMMED: I was born into a very big family. We were 9 children plus my father and mother; my father was an elementary school teacher. My mother's name was Gamileh, which means 'beautiful voice;' she possessed such a voice along with a deep sense of irony. We were poor, so the main game at home was stories, poetry, my mother's singing of folk songs— we didn't even have TV. The first time we had TV was after my baccalaureate. We created an artistic life inside of life. I learned that from my family: from my father and mother and sisters. I really learned the link between justice and beauty.
And between the details and the whole world was our joy, our pleasure, to discover and to enjoy those links. I found that was my power throughout my life— and you know that the meaning of happiness can be very different from one person to another. For me it was not money and not power, it was just the moment of discovering the links between beauty and justice.
I don't know if you need all this information, but I'll tell you. I was not an easy boy. I was a very strong fighter for the values I defended since I was a child. I had big problems in school because I never accepted violence and I was kicked out of school many times. I think I was playing the role of the good hero in cinema. I was playing it in life all the time. I had the pleasure to play and to put myself in danger and adventure. Then I found that yes, maybe, poetry was the main point that was growing inside of me because that was our game when we had no TV, nothing in the house, and my father was making competitions between us. The point of the competitions was poetry. To tell poetry and to know poetry by one's heart and to yell at each other using poetry only.
So I found that— I think I never thought about this— I found that yes, that gave me a lot and education gave me a lot and when I went to study cinema, I was thinking about justice. I was thinking that cinema is the best place to defend justice. The best way to support victims. I was not thinking a lot about cinema itself. I went there to do my best as a human being and to defend human beings.
Then during my five years studying cinema in Moscow I discovered that I had this very rich source of poetry inside. I discovered I was full of poetry. I spent most of my life on the streets, so that was the moment I discovered that the link between justice and beauty it is the main thing. And I found that it is strength— it is a path to follow. It was a great period studying in Moscow.
FLMTQ: In which years did you study in Moscow?
OM: I was there from 1974 until the end of 1979. There was some agreement between Syria and the Soviet Union for student exchange. But my case was personal because my oldest sister was a doctor of medicine and she saved someone's life, and that somebody was a person with power, and he asked her 'what do you want for saving my life?' She said 'I'm a doctor and I'm saving your life because I have to;' he said 'I can send a student to study outside of Syria.'
So my sister called me and asked 'do you want to study in Moscow?' It happened in five minutes. She proposed I study medicine and I said 'no'— I was very stupid, thinking that doctors or doctors of medicine are bourgeois. I was very limited in this case, and just wanted to fight and to win the war against imperialism in five days, then in the end she said 'a film director?' and I said directly— 'yes.'
I had a great experience there, and I was very lucky because the value of culture was much more wild and strong than politics. Because studying in Moscow at the end of Brezhnev's regime— which was the period of the dictatorship of the Communist Party, or the Dictatorship of the Central Committee, or the KGB— in this very tough period those were the people teaching cinema. But what they were really teaching us was democracy because they were pushing us very hard to a personal point of view, to what we call cinema of author— cinéma d'auteur.
And that was a great chance to know oneself and to know one's strength, one's richness, and to discover oneself through cinema. We had to respect all the details of the film, so everything was equal. The question should mean something, should tell something; the scenography should add something, the sound should add something— so all the different points of the film should be equal, should talk to each other.
It was a school of reality and, I would say, democracy. At that time there was a very strong cinema in the Soviet Union because those great masters were suffering an absence of democracy. And they were so clever to find a way to push art in, and not to make pro-regime films or such things.
Then I decided to go back to Syria, and at that time I was telling myself 'life is life, it's one time, and no compromises— whatever I would like to say, I will say it.' I was telling myself to be brave politically. We have to be brave concerning cinema language, and that is the challenge. It is a way to express our freedom, our personal freedom, and to discover the freedom of Syria. Without working in cinema language, we will repeat something which has already been said. So, yes, each time it was a big challenge.
What I liked very much about living in this period of dictatorship in Syria was that me and a few of my colleagues were going far into the life of cinematography, finding language. We had the feeling that we had no right to fail and that we would not reach any new ideas without finding the artistic 'forma,' the way to tell it the way it is— the cinematic way of telling it from the beginning, from a new idea.
I grew up there so I did very few films. Stars in Broad Daylight was banned in Syria after its first screening. Then 14 years later I made a second film, Sacrifices, which is the title in English. I like the title in Arabic: The Box of Life or The Box of Imagination.
Stars in Broad Daylight was about the shadow dictatorship inside human beings. It was, for me, about the psychological deformity that the individual, the person under dictatorship, accepts. And in the second film The Box of Life I was trying to reach the beginning of the creation of God Dictators— God as the dictator, or the dictators as God. And how we participate. We, too, participate in creating the Dictator God. Culture— religious or social— and isolation and chauvinism can create new Gods. And the new God is the Dictator.
Then, Silvered Water. That is all my cinematographic life. I worked for thirty five years. I put in all my energy, just like my friends did, because I was absolutely not waiting for my films to be selected for Cannes. And you know that Cannes gives you some power. Some virtual power and with this power I always tried to help my friends make their films. I understood we had a lot to do just to pass through this very dark moment of Syrian dictatorship and we had to find solidarity and the way of building our forces was through culture, through art.
I was always in opposition. I've never hidden this. Each time I've gone on stage, I've said 'I am in opposition.' And it is also a psychological aspect of our personalities that when you live in such circumstances you feel that you must declare, 'it's me' and go into danger. You feel good when you're facing danger.
FLMTQ: In which city in Syria were you born and raised?
OM: I'm Mediterranean. From Latakia, the main port of Syria. Latakia. Very close to Turkey. It is 80 miles from Cyprus.
Latakia today is the site of the main Russian military base in Syria.
FLMTQ: And you left Syria and moved to Paris in 2011, is that correct?
OM: Exactly. The ninth of May, 2011. As I say in the film. I left Syria with my wife, Noma Omran, the music composer and the singer from the film. We were just going for one week, and we're still here.
FLMTQ: So when you left, you didn’t decide to leave.
OM: No. Absolutely not. We bought a plane ticket for one week, round-trip. I was invited to Cannes to participate in a seminar about 'Cinema in Dictatorship' and I decided to talk about what was going on in Syria in that moment. Because people were being killed in the street. The demonstrators were being killed every day. The Syrian regime was trying to damage all this information and jail it inside.
I found that, with this invitation, I had a big chance to say 'yes' directly. I decided to go and use the stage, an important stage, to save humanity, to save great Syrian people who were declaring their love of freedom, of justice, declaring the value of human rights. That's what was happening in Syria in 2011. And I tried to talk about this. Then I discovered that I was in real danger.
FLMTQ: So this is why, in the film, the voice-over declares you as a witness and repository of images— 'I am on my way to Cannes without a film. I am the film.'
OM: Exactly. What I mean by 'I am the film'— a Syrian filmmaker with one thousand images inside. I'm going to show them. And that was it really. I showed this photo, the first image of the film. I showed it on stage.
FLMTQ: The image of 1,001 Syrians evokes Scheherazade, the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights and her tales and songs. Of course, the impetuses of narrative are different— the former weaves tales for pleasure and entertainment, while yours make seen death and cruelty and tyranny. Why did you choose to draw this connection?
OM: I think there's many reasons. Realistically, I don't want to count the images. There are many more than 1,001. I used to say it was a revolution of images and a revolution by images. It was the first time in history when the archive was filmed by thousands and thousands of personal points of view. And not an employee of the army or an employee of the ministry of defense filming the archive. It was a personal point of view. It was the first time in history that different images by people were 'in the moment'— 'in the moment' meaning a centimeter between life and death. And they were sacrificing themselves to film, to save history, to save the story.
It is virtually one thousand… I see the link. But it is a tale also— it is a tale that opened the second tale, and the second tale opens the third, and you see the culture, and it opens the tale of demonstrations: the demonstrations were a lyrical tale for freedom, pleasure, justice. And then demonstrations open the new tale, and that tale is of the Martyr.
The first night of the demonstrations, what we saw was all this massacre, all this torture, all these blood baths, victims— there is a shot in the film that takes place in the black of night on a street, with the street lamps, with somebody shouting on his mobile phone. 'Why are you killing? The world is enough for you and for us, the world is a place for everybody. So why are you doing this? Who gave you this power, the right to dominate?'
The first night opened the heart of this human being: the civilization of this Syrian personage. We don't see him. We only hear his voice. And then this story opens the gate to exile that I'm going to tell. It opened the question of exile. The question of exile opened a psychological pressure and then we discover Simav, the new storyteller. When we follow her we discover the internal story, the voices of one of many thousands of anonymous Syrians whose stories comprise this film, as she is one of them. And when we follow her, we discover Omar, little Omar, who creates a tale of justice and beauty from a devastating world. Who is a new story also.
So I see the link and it's mysterious and from my point of view I think those who decided to go to the streets in Syria, I think that probably they couldn't…. they were counting the nights. Because they started something and they could not stand back.
FLMTQ: In Silvered Water, you have given a very precise structure to all the footage you collected via a recurrence of images— how did you work on this? Given all the material you collected, how did you manage to give the chapters this sense of coherence, or recurrence?
OM: Maybe we need one hundred thousand nights to explain this! Because it is not a lot of material— it is unlimited material.
You film and edit and then when you finish the thing, you see five videos and think you'll never tell the story if you don't use those. This is very important to say— for me, it was artistic work. And I knew that respecting Simav, respecting those anonymous filmmakers, those great Syrian fighters for freedom, I believe their senses gave birth to an artistic language. I had to reach their senses to reach an artistic language they deserved. I can talk days and days about the artistic value of these videos.
I worked twelve months and I had an enormous belief that when thousands of people sent their feelings through images, uploaded and sent them via the internet to everybody in the world, I had the belief that I would be very stupid to believe this material wasn't demanding that I find the 'forma'— the cinematographic forma, the way to tell it. How to make an auteur film with a thousand authors. It is my film, it is my imagination, it is my structure, it is my feeling, but I gave deep respect to every five seconds of the film because it's comprised of their images, their feelings, their moments: that moment of urgency when you are really between life and death. I think it opened the gate for my senses to see those images one by one.
When I saw this boy, this twelve-year-old boy, in the pick-up with his dead father's body, in the beginning... do you remember? He was making demonstrations to himself alone, and talking about freedom. Then he looks at his father and discovers what has happened. He hugs his father then looks at the sky, and cries— this is a sequence filmed by an anonymous person, a Syrian person. It's a very strong sequence. You have two generations: the young boy who just became a man maybe yesterday. And the father. And the boy suddenly feels the responsibility of… and he expresses all this with his face, with his emotions.
So, for me, it is not propaganda. It's not just a collection of mobile-phone videos explaining what happened. I think it's a great artistic work. Filmed by those anonymous Syrians. So in terms of how to edit, I worked twelve months to choose those sequences, to develop the chronology, but it's not a chronologically simple tale. The episodes happen amid vast questions of existence, and cinema of being distant, and of this tragedy living itself day by day and image by image. Each sequence was asking me to build the film a little bit differently.
Sound is also part of existence. All those poor signals of sound came from the material itself. All the yelling came from the people themselves. From their dress, their whips— for me, it's a musical film. Life is full of those signals. The music for this film was not composed after we finished the montage. Noma Omran, who is a great singer and composer, was working with us during the montage, in the editing room, and we built the music together. Sometimes she'd start with her vocals, with her feeling and her senses, and she told us a lot. When you have such a voice and such images, you ask yourself what to do with the images in order to not go in a stereotypical way of playing victim.
It was the music and the voice that knew tragedy. That tragedy that all of us should know. It seems tragic because it is the end of life for someone who still has much to tell in the future. It's a tragedy because it's a massacre of future. Not only of today. They are massacring our future. That is asking a lot.
I think I am going to confuse you because it was a lot of work, and I had the feeling that the sound, the music, the images, can stand alone. Without explaining, without asking for help, without saying 'look, it's a bad regime'— no. What happened in Syria is a universal tragedy. And the film was a way to realize this universal tragedy. The tragedy is never local. There is no local tragedy.
How do you tell a tragedy? How do you compose it? It's permanent research.
FLMTQ: What words is Noma singing? What is she saying in these pieces she wrote?
OM: This is a very good question. Not good— important. I don't want to say 'good question' like I am giving marks!
The first musical note of the film is the first musical note that was discovered in history. And it was discovered in Syria. The alphabet was also discovered in Syria. The first musical note was discovered in Syria thousands and thousands of years ago. And this song, or this chapter, which begins with the guy holding photos of Assad, then we see demonstrations, then we see people shouting 'freedom, freedom' and then we see somebody shooting them— then we see the camera trying to stand back, and back, and back. With this song.
This is the place I found for the first musical note to begin. The first musical note of freedom starts in the history of Syria, and the victim we recognize in this sequence is a guy I met in a Cinema Club, a guy who was dreaming to make a Cinema Club in his quartier. And all this together— the first musical note, this destroyed street with demonstrations, the young guy dreaming to make Cinema Club— for me it is also Syria, multi-cultural Syria.
I don't want to explain that the big line between terrorist and terrorism it is also the great tongue of freedom and the country itself and the place itself and the sound and the images themselves. Those anonymous guys running with very very pixelated images, very low quality— low, low quality— are people sacrificing themselves for freedom.
I found the note in this place. In this moment. And this very pixelated image was the only shot in which we can see the young martyr I just met days before. So I'm still answering the question— what does 'high quality' mean? What does 'low quality' mean? It is a fixed meaning, or is it a moveable meaning as everything in life? That dynamism told me that low quality could be the highest quality of expression. Because if so, you can reach a real moment of history, a moment of freedom, a dream of freedom, and the tragedy growing inside that moment.
FLMTQ: The closing image of the film is of the sky. It's a shot of the open air.
OM: Yes. It's open air. It was snowing. And in red, somebody wrote the word 'freedom' in the snow.
This is a large document of our history, for me. A Syrian demonstrator who wrote with his blood, by his blood. A classical story: he wrote 'freedom' in blood on white snow. An anonymous Syrian. I think he himself, the martyr, filmed it. I think he sent it from his mobile. I think maybe it was the last thing he wanted to tell.
FLMTQ: Thank you for this conversation. Speaking to you reveals the beauty of the project, the beauty of your sensitivity, and of how with your sensitivity you have actually paid, in a way, justice to life rather than to death.
OM: I could make the film because I had the real belief that I was making a film about the beauty of lost, anonymous Syrians. The Syrian people. The people of this great multi-cultural country. They really declared for the first time that they are the sons and daughters of the great multi-cultural Syria. Looking at the film, you will recognize that it is not a question of Islam or Christianity. They were really sons of multi-cultural Syria. You can see the influence of Christianity. You can see the influence of the beautiful side of those religions because religions, sometimes— looking at history, they were trying to support justice, for a while.
I'm not going to discuss what is happening today. Religions are available until today to answer all questions or not. And me, myself, I don't believe in answering all questions. But I like beauty and for me religion is a human rights value, or declaration.
But let me tell you— for me, it was about the beauty. The question is always about the difference between stasis and dynamism. If we are prisoners in static moments, we will say this film is difficult to watch.
But look at those people who are trying to saving the dead body. Not the living body. The dead body. You remember that sequence? When a dead body was sniped all alone in the street. Somebody— the person who killed this demonstrator, or the man who was just going to get bread for his family— they want him to be alone, dead in the street. As a message to everybody in the world that this is your victim, if you want to call it that.
And, what happened? If we look at the dead body, covered in blood, somebody can say 'Oh, it's hard' or 'It's not beautiful'— but the moment when somebody wants to sacrifice themselves for this body, this dead body, and to move the dead body from a static moment, to move it physically and morally, to give him a normal human death ceremony— I feel it is the highest manifestation of beauty. To respect the dead body, to respect the dead. To give the dead a respectable moment. That's the way the life can go on.
And that's the great value of this film, the beautiful value, the beautiful imagination— there were maybe 50 sequences like this, but I was choosing millimeter by millimeter, and I was choosing those shots that were visually very strong and could follow each other and fuse the moment with the voice.
The voice that puts all this in its tragically universal moment. This moment that belongs to all tragedy that has happened in history. That was my story. I was in the artistic question, which lasts forever. And for me, art is the moment of discovering new millimeters.
Interview by Dr. Loreta Gandolfi
Affiliated Lecturer in Film
University of Cambridge
Guest Curator, Filmatique