Ex­press­ing the in­ex­press­ible

Syr­ian film­maker Soudade Kaadan tells Jessica Hol­land why she chose a silent refugee child as a fo­cal point for her doc­u­men­tary, Ob­scure, which will have its UK pre­miere at the Shub­bak Fes­ti­val in London next month

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A6- year- old Syr­ian boy called Ah­mad is the fo­cus of Soudade Kaadan’s de­but fea­ture film, Ob­scure. The film will have its UK pre­miere at the Shub­bak (which means win­dow in Ara­bic) Fes­ti­val in London, which starts on Satur­day.

He lives in a Le­banese refugee camp and is so trau­ma­tised by his ex­ile and sense of loss that he can barely speak. It takes hours of coax­ing by his mother to wake him up each morn­ing, and through­out the film he de­nies any knowl­edge of where he is from.

“Do I want to make a film about a kid who doesn’t speak at all?” – Kaadan says she asked her­self this ques­tion dur­ing the early days of film­ing. The film­maker was born in France, but moved to Da­m­as­cus at the age of 8, and lived there un­til she was driven out by the war in 2012. She felt un­able to be cre­ative for years when she be­gan her film project, des­per­ate to ex­press her feel­ings about the de­struc­tion of Syria but feel­ing in­ca­pable of do­ing so.

“The sit­u­a­tion was so cruel, I couldn’t make films any more,” she says. “I didn’t want to make a piece of news [re­port­ing] or po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis. There’s so much in­for­ma­tion about Syria out there and no one cares.”

Meet­ing Ah­mad and see­ing the “look in his eyes that you couldn’t for­get” made her re­alise that this si­lence could be at the heart of her film.

Rather than try­ing to find a co­her­ent shape to give her im­pres­sions of the con­flict, she could ad­mit the im­pos­si­bil­ity of do­ing so.

“I wanted to pass an emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence to the spec­ta­tor – for the spec­ta­tor to have more ques­tions at the end of the film than an­swers,” she says. “What can we do and how can we help these kids?”

Ah­mad is not the only per­son in the doc­u­men­tary. There is also a more talk­a­tive Syr­ian girl, Batul, and a jour­nal­ist who watches on a lap­top im­ages from the mas­sacre in which his fa­ther died.

“He was talk­ing about be­ing numb,” says Kaadan. “He says: ‘I don’t know, maybe I’m used to it – I don’t feel any­thing’.”

As the film’s ti­tle sug­gests, it was the theme of ob­scu­rity that orig­i­nally in­spired Kaadan’s project. But as she re­searched, shot and edited the film over a five-year pe­riod, she re­alised that the work is “ac­tu­ally about trauma. We weren’t fa­mil­iar with this con­cept in Syria be­fore the war. Now, most of my gen­er­a­tion has been through trauma”. She ex­per­i­mented with com­mu­ni­cat­ing this trauma through cin­e­matic lan­guage, cre­at­ing frag­ments of scenes, in­tro­duc­ing rep­e­ti­tion and pos­ing ques­tions with­out an­swers.

Some­times the audio or vis­ual track will fade out, re­placed by field record­ings, as though mem­o­ries are pen­e­trat­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of re­al­ity.

Ob­scure has al­ready been screened in Den­mark and Switzer­land. As it con­tin­ues its tour of film fes­ti­vals, Kaadan is al­ready hard at work on her next project, a fic­tional drama called Daraa Is My Shadow, which she hopes to re­lease next year. It is about a woman look­ing for gas for fuel dur­ing a cold Syr­ian win­ter, and real­is­ing that the peo­ple around her have lost their shad­ows. It is, then, an­other ex­plo­ration of the ex­pe­ri­ence of Syr­i­ans from an oblique an­gle – of a trauma, she says, that is not in­di­vid­ual but col­lec­tive.

“You see a whole gen­er­a­tion change with one ex­pe­ri­ence. It will never be the same,” she says. “When the war fin­ishes and we come back, how will we sur­vive af­ter this shock?”

That is not to say that heal­ing is im­pos­si­ble. In Ob­scure, we see glim­mers of that process as a so­cial worker painstak­ingly coaxes Ah­mad into play­ing with a xy­lo­phone.

Kaadan says it is pos­si­ble to no­tice a change in Ah­mad “from the be­gin­ning, where he’s ab­sent, to the end, where he’s say­ing: ‘I want to stay here’. You can see it in the eyes”.

will screen on July 9 as part of Shub­bak Fes­ti­val, London’s largest bi­en­nial fes­ti­val of con­tem­po­rary Arab cul­ture, which runs from Satur­day un­til July 16

Photo by Talal Khoury

Ah­mad, a trau­ma­tised young Syr­ian boy, who is the star of Soudade Kaadan’s de­but doc­u­men­tary fea­ture, Ob­scure. On the cover: an­other mo­ment from the film, fea­tur­ing Ah­mad.

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