Director Simon Safia: In “The Sardines Trying to Fly” is a documentary and fictional line in which I searched for identity in theology.

Ornina – Nawar Okasha


To decide and make an independent film, you have to be a faithful lover of cinema, passionate about its worlds, observant and keen to establish and present what is different. You must have faith in your ideas and their ability to reach others, carrying your vision and artistic orientations while fighting against everything that stands in the way of your strife to realize your goals and legitimate rights. Because independent cinema was created to reach a sense of self-accomplishment, release visions, find liberty from the control of sponsors, break the rules and traditional customs of the film industry and finally, rebel against the dictations of outdated “in the box” concepts, in order to help rediscover this art form. Until this day, independent cinema has not grown out of being experimental, and may be this is its benign theme. For it is not used for passing messages, but searches for interactive relations between elements, suggests its own hypotheses and presents them to the recipient’s awareness, in the hopes of striking his senses with doubt. Because independent cinema is far from classical supporting mechanisms requirements, and the orientations of producers, hardships in the way of its making have doubled. Even if the instruments exist, with the availability of digital cameras and both the evolution and abundance of technology ,still, there are various difficulties, which are added to the process. These difficulties seem to be greater in Syrian independent cinema, where the independent filmmaker is faced with tragic political and economic circumstances, which makes even the basics of his work harder to achieve, starting from his ability to free himself to think about making his film, passing through the acquirement of filming permits and ending with post-production and the filmmaker’s ability to show and market his film. In the forefront of these filmmakers,, comes Simon Safieh (1988), having spent six years at the Tartouss Cinema Club, to make his own cinema, rich with his intellectual search in cinema and arts, and his diligence through science and experiment, in a country that has blocked the academic study of cinema from its citizens.

With activeness and enthusiasm, Safieh set out several years ago, he worked as a co-filmmaker or a trainee with many filmmakers in their film locations: My Last Friend, 29th February, on the Wait for Fall, the Bus and Violet Fires.

His unique start was with a film called (Yamou-Mother) (unfinished). Later on, he went to make his first experimental film of the one minute category (Not Just an Apple 2012-1 min), which got the citation of the One Minute films Festival in America. After that, he moved on to the documentary (The Tunnel 2013-25 min), produced by Poor Film, and was not shown until 2015. He also has two short feature films, the first is (Why? 2013-8 min), produced by the General Organization of Cinema, and (Julia 2014-16min), also produced by the General Organization of Cinema. Safieh participated in many film festivals, and won many awards. He is also very active in workshops within the project (Peace Leans), which is meant to train and enable Syrian youths in the field of filmmaking and positive interaction with society. Finally, he headed, through (Poor Film) initiative, towards producing his first long narrative film. The initiative ,which is based on uniting and embracing cinema lovers to release independent film productions which satisfy the passion of the ambitious, has made its first long narrative film, titled (Sardine’s Trying to Fly), after four years of searching, experimenting and work, in order for it to be an added experience to Syrian independent cinema, especially in its attempt to breath outside the water and fly in vaster spaces. The film is ready to be shown, and is being promoted with a musical album, which is inspired by its concept, and composed by Samer Al-Noaimi. The lead roles in the film are performed by: Muhammad Abd-Allah Ali, Muhsen Abbas, Nancy Khoury, Ward Haider, Nour Ghanem and others.

Ornina conducted an interview with Safieh, and he says, concerning the theory of the film and its idea: The theory came from the phrase: “In Syria, every ten minutes, a person dies because of the war, what if one of those who died, came back to life?” I asked myself this question, while reading the annual documented UN report. It drove me to insomnia, so, I wrote a collection of scenes as a primary scenario, then presented it to some friends, some of whom had stinging criticism for it, and others saw in it a good script, especially that it came after the making of my film (Julia).

Then, I held a workshop for a group of filmmakers, where I noted their observations surrounding the idea. After that, I sought an actor, whom I have chosen to work on an another film. I sent him the script, and asked him to prepare for it. Over the course of two months, we held proves, then we started filming.  

The film seems sensitive with its hypothesis, and its directive method, which merges several cinematic types and patterns. In this regard, Safieh says: I have two plot lines, a documentary and a feature (narrative and experimental). The attempt to deliver more than one pattern needs time, to both ponder and film, considering of course the lack of production. When we say (merging) between feature and documentary, it means that the existence of a fusion state between the two patterns during filming is necessary for them to overlap properly. The two are different from each other, so, with the feature line, we went towards modern realism, but the hardest quest was working with the actor for two months, and for him to personify the main character, then putting him inside un event to interact with people. I did not micromanage him, in regards to memorization, dialogue and provas…we filmed provas as if they were going to be the scenes, which is the reason why so many scenes came uninterrupted, to give a sense of authentic realism to the film. Moments of dramatic construction with the actor are truly different, just like the interaction between his character and its emotional state, or the people in public places within the film’s theory. This is the real laboratory. It has to do with consciousness and unconsciousness, because you are a son of this society during this moment. All that happens inside it affects you, and you reproduce it as a filmmaker . This is what I tried to do in this film.

When we asked him about the duration necessary to complete the film, he answered: This is the form of this industry. You make an independent film, without production. That is the nature of the film, the form of its production, the personal experience of its maker and his relationship with reality. What matters in the end is to continue searching about and for the film, moving towards it, no matter how long it takes, for this is your quest, and you are free to do with it as you please. In the end, the audience is the judge on the permanence of the film or its oblivion. And concerning his premonitions and expectations of receiving the audience’s opinions after showing his film, Simon Says: I only came to the film industry because I am in love with it. I love this art, and I do not want to relinquish my passion towards it, so I will keep experimenting with it whether I succeed or fail. Now, the film does not concern me, as much as what I have been through with this experience. This is what I wish for every lover of cinema to live, for it is the right of every person who desires to make a film, to fulfill that desire. Aside from evaluations, it is a right to dream and it must be defended, and I defended my right with this film. I am not a gambler, I think that the Syrian audience has not watched, so it is not accustomed to, the Syrian film production over the course of the last fifteen years. Said production went with its dramatic form towards processing reality. This tendency was accepted by the audience, considering that drama is intertwined with televisions, which exist in every Syrian household. In effect, drama never broke out of that desired frame, or what is called the needs of the market. This also reflected on film production. Therefore, I believe that what happened is that the audience was presented with experiences, which might even be commercial outside the country. The experiences we call “independent films”, or out of the box or mainstream context, are common worldwide. In conclusion, if the audience goes to the theatre wanting to see something, and sees your film, it either likes it, which means you become knowledgeable and understanding of market needs, or it does not, which means the problem lies with you alone.

I want more than the audience becoming accepting, I do not seek admiration for my work, for art is a human product, which man uses to express his emotions, sentiments or his opinion about something. These feelings and the narration mechanism may reach people or not, mentioning of course that this is dependent of the viewer’s level of culture. Art is a space to differ from others and be acquainted with them. Each person in this space presents his artistic product. It may be well-liked by a group and criticized by another. This state of reconciliation does not exist in reality, filmmakers today live in a superior bubble, with their apathy towards the audience understanding or liking their films. And we also take admiration in this field lightly for some reason. For instance, a filmmaker will not admire you, nor present his work to let you admire what he has to offer, he only presents you with an experience you are already used to.

On his views about Syrian cinema in general, and the independent part of it, he says: Syrian cinema has no film identity, I mean a true cinematic identity. The artistic experiences that were created and lived in this country are few. In Syrian cinema, there are films, but there is no Syrian cinema. I am talking about the Syrian identity, after 2010, we became in a constant state of confusion, as if we are unable to see real academic experiences in cinema, which may advance the Syrian film in the world, in addition to the present situation in Syria. These are the two reasons why there is no experiences inside the country, and why the environment outside was not suited for participation and competing.

In this film, I searched for identity in anonymity. When I made the choice, while writing the script, to merge feature with documentary, it was an attempt to project the character’s non-existent identity on the script and film. So, when I went for an experimental frame, it was also an attempt to delve deep in anonymity. In cinema, it is impossible to start a new wave in the absence of institutions which nurture experiences, for without institutionalizing experiences, they will remain film “experiences” only. We need an institution, a gathering or an incubating environment, so experiences can present themselves as an artistic product locally and internationally.

While concerning his directive experience of his own part in the film (Memory Nostalgia), which was made by four filmmakers, and produced by the General Organization of Cinema, Simon says:  I had an experience with my part, which was totally different from anything I have ever made, also different from the general mood. I took the script to a new place, and I went with a narrative optical solution in a new pattern, which has not been attempted here before. The organization gave me a vast artistic space with new options, which were sometimes experimental.

Simon Safieh’s experience in Syrian independent cinema comes as one of many, which imposed themselves by force in the current stage. Perhaps, these experiences may form an incentive for change, and draw a future equipped with new mechanisms, that gives rise to Syrian cinema, so it becomes able to present a more liberated and creative content.