By N. Buket Cengiz.
The 12th edition of Documentarist, the sole independent documentary festival in Turkey, was held on 15-20 June 2019 in Istanbul with the support of the European Endowment for Democracy, consulates of Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Check Republic, Denmark and other institutions such as the Goethe Institute.
Among the highlights of this year’s festival was You Come from Far Away (2018) by Amal Ramsis, an Egyptian filmmaker who has a close bond with Turkey. Giving up her career as a lawyer, Ramsis studied directing at the International Film and Television School in Madrid. After her short films Beirut Is on the Seaside (2001), Only Dreams (2005) and, Life (2009) she made her first feature Forbidden (2011) which took many international awards including the Best Film in the Festival of Political Cinema realized by Women of Madrid and the Best Documentary Film in the Festival Internacional de Cine Pobre. With her second feature The Trace of the Butterfly (2015), she received the Audience Award in Dortmund/Cologne’s International Women’s Film Festival. Ramsis, who is the director of Cairo International Women’s Film Festival, conducts workshops with women who have no experience in filmmaking.
In her latest film, Ramsis traces the story of Najati Sidqi (1905-1979) and his family. Sidqi was a Palestinian communist who went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War and wrote about the war for Arab and Spanish journals. He was a public intellectual and a trade unionist, translator, writer and critic who was fluent in French, Russian and Spanish.
The film unfolds around the story of Dawlat, the oldest of Sidqi’s three children, who grew up at an orphanage in Russia. Skillfully juxtaposing the archival footage of the historical catastrophes of the times together with current footage of personal memoir the film achieves to talk about the social through the personal and vice versa without letting neither the messages nor the emotions dictate the narrative. Director Ramsis also deserves appraise for subtly balancing the inherent melancholy in her film through a touch of optimism with a serene finale in Moscow bringing Dawlat together with her sister living in Greece and her brother living in Brazil.
What made you decide shooting a film on a revolutionary Arab on the side of the Republicans against Franco’s fascism? Hanna Abu Hanna compiled and wrote the introduction for Sidqi’s memoirs. Was this your departure point?
The idea of the film came to my mind in 2003 when I had learnt for the first time about the Arabs who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. 2003 was a very special year in the recent political history of this century; it was the year of the war against Iraq. In my opinion, with the invasion of Iraq by the US troops a new era of fascism also started: one time it was in the name of God and this time in the name of “fighting the terrorism.” At that moment when it came to my knowledge the unknown fact about the participation of communist, anarchist and Trotskyist Arabs in the Spanish Civil War, fighting for the revolution and against fascism, I felt that recovering this historical fact could help us to understand better the current political and economic situation, how fascism works and why the democratic and social project was defeated. At the same time, the participation of Arabs with such awareness of the importance of the international solidarity for change, the relation between colonialism and fascism could give as well an idea about the political atmosphere in the Arab World during that period.
I learnt about the memories of Najati Sidqi for which Hanna Abu Hanna wrote the introduction in 2007, around 4 years after starting working on the film and on the research of that film, so it was not the departure point.
Why is revolutionary Arabs’ participation in the Spanish Civil War an unknown page of history?
Actually we know very few about the Spanish Civil War. We still don’t know about thousands of Spanish republicans who fought against Franco. This lack of information and analysis about the war was because fascism and Franco won the war, their victory was followed by years of repression in Spain. Thousands of people were killed, thousands lost their homes and had to flee abroad. And those who found themselves obliged to live with their executioner had to keep silent, to accept the reality as it is and to protect their children from being accused to be republicans; the biggest and most dangerous accusation during many years in Spain. In thousands of cases the parents could not even dare to tell their children about their past.
When it comes to the Arab volunteers during the Civil War, our lack of information could be understood if we know that most of them entered to Spain with falsified passports from France where they were figured as French citizens. Also they came as pseudonymous people, because they were part of the communist parties which were always criminalized in the Arab World. That’s why it took many years to know the real names of most of the volunteers; we still don’t know the real names of many others who are registered pseudonymously in the archive.
At the center of your film there is memory and remembering. What do you think about the accelerating interest in memory?
I think that the history repeats itself but not in a straight line; it takes other dynamics, the protagonists could have different faces, the axis of interests are moving to exploit new areas, even the wars are taking different forms, but unfortunately the winners are still the same, and we are still the losers. They know how to learn from the past, how to organize themselves internationally, how to keep going and finding infinite ways to manipulate us with technology, with the media, even with the so called “democracy.” On the contrary, we did not manage to learn from history. One of the biggest reasons for this situation is our lack of historical memory, the lack of observing and analyzing what happened instead of repeating or memorizing the facts. Recovering the historical memory means having dialectic vision and critical thoughts towards our history so that we don’t face always the same destiny.
For such a mission we need first to free the archives. It is very difficult to use or to publish archive materials because it is very expensive. As such, the giant archive companies detain our access to the visual archive on the major turning points in the recent history. The extraordinary prices for archive materials say a lot about who has the right to tell the history and who is trying to stop access to knowledge about our past. It is necessary to organize an academic and intellectual movement to free archives from the hand of these companies.
In your film the line separating the personal memory from the collective memory is constantly deconstructed. What would you say about that?
In my opinion there is no line separating the collective memory from the personal one, our collective memory is our personal memory shared with others. That’s why you can’t follow a clear line between the two in my film; such a line does not exist for me. But not only this, I tried in my film to reconstruct part of our collective memory through one single personal memory, the memory of Najati Sidqi’s family. Here, I tried to reconstruct our collective memory about our recent history and about the wars experimented by millions of people from the personal memory of Dulia, Hind and Said.
Buket Cengiz is a freelance writer who writes on culture and arts, focusing on music and cinema. She holds a PhD in Turkish Studies from Leiden University and works at Kadir Has University in Istanbul as a lecturer.