By Roberto Cavallini.
Yom Adaatou Zouli (The Day I Lost my Shadow) by Syrian director Soudade Kaadan, was presented as a world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Orizzonti Competition, where it won the prestigious “Lion of the Future, Luigi De Laurentiis award for a debut film”. The film soon appeared at a selection the most important international festivals, such as the Toronto International Film Festival, BFI-London Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Busan International Film Festival.
The film explores the prelude to the Syrian war from the point of view of Sana (Sawsan Arshid), a young mother, and her relationship with her son Khalil (Ahmad Ali). It’s 2012 and it’s the coldest winter ever in Damascus: Sana sees her daily life crumbling little by little, until while preparing dinner, the gas cylinder she has scavenged for cooking is emptied and she needs another. This minimal narrative expedient opens the journey of the protagonist, from the initial scenes inside her home, to the external chaos where the proximity of a war has already penetrated the Damascene life.
When Sana meets Jalal (Samer Ismail) and her sister Reem (Reham Al Kasar), they are both looking for a gas cylinder; they end up together in the suburbs of Damascus, already a no man’s land. Sana will discover that normality vanishes with the disappearance of her own shadow and that, despite everything, the subtraction of that reflection coincides with the saturation of reality: the one who loses her own shadow becomes a ghost, present and absent at the same time. And this is the central theme developed by the film: the paradox of the ghost as the condition of whom is present but absent at the same time. The violence of war transforms each individual into a precarious presence by contaminating the roots and relationships through which we grow as human beings. To lose our own shadow is to lose our connection with reality, to become invisible and transparent. The scene of – spoiler alert – Jalal’s death is very telling in this sense. Sana finds him dead, although his body shows no traces of wounds. When Sana desperately drags him away from the soldiers to bring him back to his sister Reem, they shoot him, making the wounds visible. It’s a symbolic reference, as the director has explains in the interview below, to the fact that thousands of people during the war disappeared: their bodies not found, with no hope to find them alive.
After making several documentaries, Kaadan debuts with a fiction film that melts realism and documentary image wrapped into a dramatic, often surprising but linear film, in a crescendo of micro-situations that leave some viewers astonished, others incredulous. Yom Adaatou Zouli, however, is not a film about hope, but how not to be imprisoned by fear, even if on the verge of madness. It inspires us to understand the power of the gaze, as we witness a fragment of reality that can hardly leave us indifferent.
I spoke with Soudade few days after her world premiere in Venice and before she left for her international festival tour.
What inspired you to become a director?
I loved films, but I never thought I will be a director. I thought this magical universe is something far from me, something beyond my reach as a creator and I was happy to be among the avid cinephile audience. How could I think of it and there is no film school in Syria, only one functioning cinema in Damascus and women were never encouraged to be directors in my theater studies, we were supposed to be the researchers only. Until I stood up the first time, behind a camera to film my first shot, then I knew immediately this is the only thing I wanted to do all my life, and nothing else. I was 24.
You have been directing and producing various documentaries for for Aljazeera Documentary Channel, UNDP, UNHCR and UNICEF. How did the documentary practice affected the style and aesthetics of “The Day I lost my shadow” ?
Even when I used to make documentaries I used to mix genres, I liked to mix documentary genre with fiction and animation, so it was almost logical that when I was writing fiction and envisioning The Day I lost My Shadow to do it with a mix genre approach, from the casting to the filming style. I tried to have a handheld camera with a subjective point of view to express the urgency of the situation, and the emotional feeling of the characters during the war while I kept the fixed general shots for the magical realism moments. I also tried to keep the realistic feelings based on archive photos in costumes and decors.
“The Day I lost my shadow” is an intense and well-crafted debut, your directing skills are impressive and the performances of the cast speak loud about this. How was your experience directing your cast, can you share any anecdote of the set?
To keep the intensity of the acting, I decided not to inform the actors in any moments the place of the camera angle neither on which actor it is focusing. While me and the DOP were planning the shots setting and movement, the actors performance was free from the camera. They were playing to each other and to me, saying there is no off acting in any shot. I also tried to mixed professional actors with non actors coming from my refugee community in Lebanon. The mix between professional actors and non professional created intense emotional moments where the emotions didn’t finish with “cut”. A lot of time I had to go see why they are still acting in the funerals while the camera is off to discover it reminded them of the funeral of a son or a brother. One anecdote is that there was a scene at the end of the film where the kid talks politically and the mother warned him not to say so or they will all disappear. The kid, coming from Shabra & Shatila camps in Beirut, who is an amazing actor playing the role of Sana’s son, suddenly couldn’t say his sentences. The kid who could memorize any sentence couldn’t say the words Sana/his mom in the film, told him it is dangerous to say. So we end up cutting out the scene.
“The Day I lost my shadow” is not a political film, but somehow, dubbing Godard, you made a film politically, first of all constructing the dramaturgy around a strong female point of view. Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing and its relationship with the development of the Syrian War?
I don’t make political propaganda films, but films cannot be but political when you are only approaching the human side of the war. This is the paradox of movies I believe. I wanted to write a simple story of a mother doing the war who didn’t care about politics, the point of view of a mother who only wants to have the basic needs to survive the day. That’s why I chose a cylinder of gas. It’s something basic, heavy and could explode in any moment. I wrote the film while I was in Syria in 2011, and I refused to leave until I finished a solid version of the script at the end of 2012. The film is a reflection of this period. I knew at this time that I wouldn’t be able to reflect the fast path of changing events in Syria so I tired to limit the film into three days of Sana’s life. All the story of the film is limited in time, so the changes of events in Syria won’t effect the essence of the story.
One of the most powerful statements of the film is that a person without shadow is a ghost: or, in other words, a life moving between presence and absence at the same time, with no hope in-between. This particular take on the story is, I think, your artistic signature as an author: how did you develop it and realise it was an essential part of your story?
I love your interpretation of the shadow “a life moving between presence and absence”. I know this image would have a lot of interpretations depending of the audience and that’s why I chose it. Because at that moment in Syria the feelings I had was beyond words, I felt only that loosing a shadow can express it. It started with a simple photo in black and white the day after the Hiroshima was destroyed. You see shadows of the people engraved for ever on the ground while they are not there anymore. This image stroked me as if what’s happening in Damascus is completely the opposite. We are still alive, walking but without shadow and somehow this felt harder to me than the images of Hiroshima. I also felt like the cruelty of reality in Syria is beyond the direct images so I had to find my way in magic realism to express the loss and void.
What was the most important thing you learned in the process of making your debut film? How did this experience shaped your relationship with filmmaking?
As my first feature film, every moment of it was a new learning experience, from writing, to shooting to editing, VFX, sound design until the festival premiere. That’s why I’m making now the new film. Or to be honest the new film was in treatment while I was working on this film for 7 years. But I will definitely try to make the new film differently and in shorter time.
Roberto Cavallini is a film scholar and producer. He holds a PhD in Visual Cultures (Goldsmiths, University of London) and between 2012 and 2016, he was Assistant Professor at Yasar University (Izmir, Turkey). He has published internationally in academic journals (Studies in European Cinema, Aniki, New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film) and since 2006, he served as creative producer for cultural and film projects. In 2017, he founded Altrove Films, an independent production company developing and realizing films and documentaries.