Syria’s civil war and the “Border” that kindles hope

20140403 Border

COPPOLA NicolamariaSyria’s Civil War and the “Border” that kindles hope
by Nicolamaria Coppola for Northern Ireland Foundation
3 April 2014

Syria’s turmoil began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in March 2011 in the southern city of Daraa, sometimes called the “Cradle of the Revolution”. The government responded to the protests with large arrests, torture of prisoners, police brutality and censorship of events.

But it also gave something in exchange, in order to cool down the heated spirits. In fact, Assad enacted some political and economic reforms and he released hundreds of political prisoners from jail. But the protests evolved into an armed rebellion, with clashes taking places in many towns and cities across the country.

On the battlefield, the actors are the Syrian government, whose militias are the Syrian Armed Force, the National Armed Force (Shabiha and Jaysh al-Sha’bi) and the Ba’ath Brigades, on one side, and the Syrian opposition made up of several groups, both non-belligerent (Syrian National Coalition) and armed (Free Syrian Army, Mujahideen, Al-Nusra Front, Islamic Front, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), on the other side.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Syria’s three-year war has killed more than 150,000 people, with half of the population estimated to have fled their homes, seeking sanctuary either in neighbouring countries or somewhere else in Syria itself. The number of refugees who have left Syria has exceeded 2 million. In Lebanon, there are more than 1 million Syrian refugees. Nearly 600,000 have registered as refugees in Jordan, more than 200,000 in Iraq and about 670,000 in Turkey.

Almost half of the refugees are girls and women, while another quarter are boys under 18. The number of school-aged children is now over 400,000, and the vast majority is out of school.

Refugees have been flowing across the neighbouring countries’ boundaries, and those dangerous crossings are the subject of “Border”, an Italian film about Syria’s Civil War, showed at the 14th Belfast Film Festival.

“Border” is a drama that describes the borders of Syria, both the political and the physical ones, but also the fine line between good and bad, between religious fundamentalism and freedom, between the adherence to the power and traditional principles, with the desire to rise up against societal obligations and impositions.

The directorial debut of the Italian screenwriter Alessio Cremonini depicts a true story that is a portion of reality of a country where nearly 100 people die everyday due to causes related directly or indirectly to the Civil War.

“Border” is halfway between documentary and fiction, and it is based on the true odyssey of two Syrian sisters fleeing their war-torn country in 2012. The film begins with video footage of the war, snipers shooting from rooftops, a hillside town exploding under a hail of explosions and scenes of pro- and anti-government marches. Then the film viewers are taken inside the home of two sisters, Fatima and Aya. Fatima is a new bride. Her husband has gone to war and she lives a quiet life with her sister Aya in the conjugal flat. The sisters are observant Muslims, and they spend a great deal of their time devoted to practising their faith. When news comes that Fatima’s husband has left the Syrian Army to join the Free Army of “rebels”, they are forced to flee their home and their troubled country, to avoid the repercussions of the actions taken by Fatima’s husband. There is really no choice for either woman: they have to escape and reach the border of Turkey to be safe.

They begin their journey, and along the road they meet a mysterious man named Bilal, who is hurrying to get away from Syria for untold reasons. The trip is fraught with several unexpected turns that keep them from moving forward as quickly as anyone had thought.

The film shows the fear and the terror of those who are forced to do something against their will. It depicts the stark, brutal reality of the war, with deception and danger that lie around every corner. During their trip, Fatima and Aya realize that they need to find safety, and they agree that will be safe only in Turkey. They long for the border, which represents their rebirth and kindles their hope. They try to reach it, but the happy ending is not assured.

“Border” is not a perfect film in terms of camera work, direction and performance. Shot in Italy on a 60,000-euro budget from private investors, the actors themselves are even at their first cinematographic experience. They are not professional, but they try to do their best and succeed with dignity.

Although questionable and controversial in terms of movie making, “Border” is a very interesting film because is concerned with the Civil War in Syria that is an ongoing event. “Border” has given voice and visibility to a tragedy that is current but already forgotten, and this is the strong point and the surplus value of this Italian movie.

“Sleepless Nights”: The unresolved conflict between Assaad and Maryam in post-conflict Lebanese society

20140402 Sleepless NightsCOPPOLA Nicolamaria“Sleepless Nights”: The unresolved conflict between Assaad and Maryam in post-conflict Lebanese society
by Nicolamaria Coppola for Northern Ireland Foundation
2 April 2014

“Lebanon is a lie. Politicians are liars. Our lives are a lie”. Maryam Saiidi says it like it is, not mince words. She is angry, furious, frustrated and disillusioned. She represents those who cannot forget the past. She refuses to let go of her son’s memory and rejects all attempts to make her feel better. She is searching for the truth, and this is her only raison d’être.

The truth she is desperately looking for concerns the fate of her son. Maryam is the mother of a young fighter, Maher Qasir, who fought alongside communist partisans against the right-wing Lebanese allies of Israel, the Lebanese Forces and/or Phalanges, during Lebanon’s terrible 15-year Civil War (1975-90). He went missing during a clash at a university, and he is one of more than 17.000 such people whose fates remain unknown.

Maryam is one of the two characters at the centre of “Sleepless Nights”, the Lebanese documentary shown at Queen’s Film Theatre as part of the Belfast Film Festival. The other character is Assaad Shaftari, a former intelligence officer of the Lebanese Forces, who was responsible for many killings during Lebanon’s Civil War. Shaftari knows more than he admits about the destiny of the so-called “missing people”. Often tortured and then shot, the people termed “missing” were dumped into mass graves whose whereabouts largely remain a secret.

Shaftari seems to know the truth about the tragic epilogue of Maryam’s son, but he refuses to release crucial information that might help the woman in finding, at least, the location of mass graves in which her son could have been buried.

The hardest scene to watch is, without a doubt, the confrontation between Assaad and Maryam at a photo exhibition on the missing people. Maryam starts to shout against Assaad, accusing him of the atrocities committed during the Civil War. Assad seems to consider Maryam’s shouting as a way of cleansing himself of his culpability. During the war, he reports, he made a deal with a priest to receive absolution for the murder of 500 people, allowing him to murder a further 500 before their next session together.

Maryam does not give up and is willing to question anyone who could provide her with information regarding her missing son, and confront anyone who is an obstacle in her quest. As Eliane Rahed, the film’s director, stated in an interview: “Her confrontational and dynamic attitude created a dialectic line to Assaad’s character, and their encounter in the film brought new meanings and explorations of the difficult ‘truth’ and ‘reconciliation’ process in today’s Lebanon.”

The conflict between Assaad and Maryam is the unresolved conflict between those who do not want to talk about the dark years of the Civil War and the atrocities committed in that time, and those who want to know the truth, whatever the cost.

Although officially ending in 1990, the conflict in Lebanon is still ongoing; it is experienced through the words of both Assaad and Maryam. Assaad wants the establishment of a Christian society in Lebanon and the transformation of Lebanon into a Christian state that is ally of Israel, while Maryam states that Lebanon is a fake manufactured state in which the conspiracy of silence makes people like her unhappy.

Assaad has never been sentenced for his crimes committed when he was an officer of the Lebanese Forces, because Lebanon’s Civil War ended with an amnesty exonerating all who committed political crimes during the conflict. The most important and the prevalent thrust of “Sleepless Nights” is that the amnesty does not work, neither for the victims, who have no closure, nor for the perpetrators, whose guilt without punishment, at least in Shaftari’s case, provides no hope of release.

“Sleepless Nights” teaches us that it is better to face the truth, rather than to ignore it. The documentary points out that it is possible to read the past starting from the present, reflecting the effects of the lack of national debate between enemies of the past, and between the people who still carry wounds from the Civil War.

The Lebanese Civil War has been one of the worst conflicts of the last century. The provoking reasons can be traced back to the French mandate in the first decades of the 20th century, which altered the political and social system, creating a religious conflict and polarizing the identity patterns of the Lebanese population.

The Lebanese Civil War is a perfect example of sectarian conflict in which religion takes a crucial role. The main characters of Lebanon’s Civil War were the Maronite Christians, whose militia, the Lebanese Force or Phalanges, had the support of Israel, the Sunnis, the Shias and the Druze group.

It is important to clarify that the conflict in Lebanon has never been about theology, but religion has a central role in marking identity in Lebanese society. Leaders use religious symbols to mobilize people and reinforce sectarian identities, in order to enhance differences among people sharing the same basic culture and languages. In Lebanon, communal identity, shaped by the religious belonging, remains the bedrock of the society.

Nowadays, mutual coexistence between Lebanon’s different sects and their proper political representations is the basis of the post-civil war societal system. The principle of mutual coexistence has been formulated within the Taif Agreement, which was signed on 22 October 1989, in Taif, Saudi Arabia, and constituted the outcome of a process of reconciliation and compromise among the Lebanese deputies, political groups and parties, militias and leaders, with the effective support of the Syrians, the Arabs, and the international community.

Despite the accomplishment of the Taif Agreement in ending the Civil War, Lebanon remains an insecure and occasionally violent place. Lebanon is still a divided country, where the identities of its different sects are always on the edge of a new clash. The documentary “Sleepless Nights” captures Lebanon’s damaged soul, and it opens the unhealed wounds caused by the Civil War, through the firsthand narrative of Maryam, who is consumed by the need to know her son’s fate.