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Film Review | Queens of Syria

Screened in Malta as part of an Inizjamed initiative, Yasmine Fedda's documentary about a group of uprooted Syrian refugee women putting on a Euripides play makes for powerful viewing

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
22 February 2016, 7:43am
Queens of Syria documents the process of a group of displaced Syrian women transposing their experiences onto a production of Euripides’s The Trojan Women
Queens of Syria documents the process of a group of displaced Syrian women transposing their experiences onto a production of Euripides’s The Trojan Women
As we continue to gear towards the Oscars and the hype abounds for the already-gilded nominees – all the while our cinemas continue to drip-drab vacuous Hollywood produce – it’s refreshing to have something slightly meatier to experience outside of the mainstream cinematic milieu.

In this case, I’m referring to a screening organised by Inizjamed and the Valletta 2018 Foundation of Yasmin Fredda’s Queens of Syria – a documentary on a theatrical production of Euripides’s Trojan Women performed by displaced Syrian female refugees in Jordan – taking place last week at Palazzo Pereira in Valletta, with the director in tow for a post-show Q&A.

An immediately attention-grabbing conceit does not mean the film coasts on its logline, and Fredda’s sensitive handling of the ‘production diary’ genre – perfected by the likes of Robert Altman in the Western cinematic canon – works because the emotional arcs of the female characters remain the point of focus.

At the helm of the Syrian director Omar Abu Saada, the women are made to embody Euripides’s characters from 415 B.C. But in a twist that’s both appropriate and harrowing – and which, of course, lends further credence to the project – the plight of the play’s Trojan Women, who are left to sift through the ravages of that legendary skirmish, tragically matches that of the contemporary actresses. Culminating in its premiere night in Amman in 2013, the performance was made possible thanks to British filmmaking couple Charlotte Eagar and William Stirling, classicists who saw the potential in linking the ancient play to current events.

 

Apart from the harrowing episodes that the participants themselves recount – forced disappearances and executions appear to be the order of the day under the Assad regime – the most poignant aspect of the experience to emerge from Fedda’s project is the complex and nuanced way these women process this unique development in their already turbulent lives.

Abu Saada’s obvious challenge is to elevate a non-professional cast to professional standards. But while a more conventional narrative – non-fictional or otherwise – may have focused on his struggles to keep ship afloat, Fedda documents how the construction of the play takes on the dynamics of a therapy session. It becomes clear that this is an integral part of the process in every sense of the word – the women need the space to tell their stories, which will end up mixed in with Euripides’s play.

This is of course a complicated process, and the most important thing to emerge is the different way in which the women tackle the necessities of the production. Even their very involvement is often an issue – if it isn’t fears of retaliation from the regime, it’s husbands who aren’t so convinced that what they’re wives are doing is ethical or in conformity with social convention. In fact, the cast’s dwindling numbers functions as a structuring device for the film – appearing on screen to lend some urgency and to remind us that the premiere date is approaching.

The nervous but understanding Abu Saada keeps the ship on course regardless, placating wavering cast members with phone calls and reminding them that what they’re doing isn’t dangerous, but an honest expression of their life experiences – an exercise in storytelling.

But storytelling in this case becomes an act of advocacy, of witnessing. But what we end up witnessing is rich and varied. The real value of Fedda’s film is to break open the flat, uniform perception of the victims of war, especially those coming from the Middle East, and especially Muslim women. Their suffering isn’t uniform. And despite everything, hints of pride, humour and joy still shine through.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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