Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait is a kind of paradox. Is it an experiment? An installation? A documentary? An essay? An assemblage? An art work? A document? The answer would be: all of the above. Or none of the above.
It's by no means a conventional, traditional film work; its mere existence is extraordinary, and that it is gaining release in several territories, outside the festival circuit, is even more extraordinary. But its subject cannot be contained in a conventional structure: Silvered Water is a film that asks what does it mean to film, to make cinema, today, in a world where the concepts of civilization and society are being constantly attacked from all sides. What can a film mean to the world in which it exists?
Almost impossible to describe or summarize, very difficult to sit through due to the graphic nature of many of its images, Silvered Water is, however, vital and urgent, both as a topical document of the horrors of the civil war in Syria and as an essay on how can the moving image best bear witness to them. The conflict is seen both from a distance and from within: the first "act" reflects the powerlessness of Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed, who travelled to France in 2011 to attend the Cannes festival but did not return after learning his presence in a "black list" of undesirables back home. Watching Syria crumble from afar, unable to do anything other than despairing, he collects and assembles images shot in the heat of the moment by "1001 Syrians" (as the credits put it) using cellphones and consumer cams, updated to the internet in real time.
At that point, an e-mail dialogue opens - with Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a Kurdish teacher in the besieged city of Homs, who contacts Mr. Mohammed to ask what to film, what to record from the city around her. The director pretty much cedes the film from then on to her footage, to her voice; from putting the viewer in the same position of powerlessness and despair as Mr. Mohammed, Silvered Water allows him now a glimpse into a need to bear witness and offer hope to what comes next (not surprisingly since Ms. Bedirxan is a teacher, children feature prominently).
But what raises the project above a simple assemblage of pre-existing footage is the very nature of the enterprise, its constant questioning of form and function. Mr. Mohammed, who assembled the film in Paris, is not interested in proposing a mere record of cruelty and war; he is also interested in what can these images mean and how they are going to be interpreted and articulated, in how they fit within the narratives of history, culture, the world around him.
The Arabian Nights are a constant reference, in the concept that, as Scheherezade kept spinning yarns to stay alive, so do these images. But their story is also articulated in terms of the essay film as predicated by Jean-Luc Godard's progressive entwining of history and film or as begun by the explosion of the Nouvelle Vague and its emphasis on the experimental: caméra-stylo, cinéma-vérité, Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais' "you have seen nothing at Hiroshima", Akira Kurosawa's Dodes-ka'den, Mr. Godard's regular confluence of the political and the personal in his current post-narrative essays, all of this and more collides throughout the short but intense length of Silvered Water.
It's a demanding, adventurous object, certainly one that does not work within the framework of traditional film. But that cannot be used as an excuse to ignore one of the most undeniably powerful cinematic essays of recent years.
EAU ARGENTÉE, SYRIE AUTOPORTRAIT
France, Syria 2014
Directors Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan; screenwriter Mr. Mohammed; cinematographer Ms. Bedirxan (colour); composer Noma Omran; editor Maisoum Asaad; producers Serge Lalou, Camille Laemlé, Orwa Nyrabia and Diana el Jeiroudi; production companies Les Films d'Ici and Proaction Film in association with ARTE France La Lucarne
Screened November 5th 2014, Lisbon (Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival competition screener DVD)