His project is Human inside war… Simon Safieh: I make films to communicate with people…Cinema is my way to discover the world.
Juhayna – Noureddine Najjar
A talent, of which everybody expects so much. The cinema club in Tartouss planted inside him a passion for cinema, so he sought after that passion and drowned in its ocean. Cinema became for him a way to discover the world, present himself to it and communicate with people. He was occupied with present reality, which drove him to pursue its worries and become a living document that attests for his time. He adopted independent cinema and made it his vocation. With self-funding and personal effort, he made his first long film (Sardine’s Trying To Fly) after hard work that lasted for years. This film received honoring at the Italian Napoli Film Festival. He is the young Simon Safieh, with whom Jouhaina met, to talk about his career, works and his vision for cinema and reality, all in this next interview.
Honoring in Italy
At the beginning, we congratulate you for the citation of your film (Sardine’s Trying To Fly) by the committee of the Italian Napoli Film Festival, how did an international audience receive a Syrian independent film?
The reception took the form of a letter attached to the prize by the festival’s committee, it says: (the honoring was, for the film’s creation of a balanced relationship between fantasy and reality, without any sense of detachment between the various components of narration, for it presents a metaphorical thrill that follows memory and identity side by side in the film’s space). Meaning that the film’s reception was artistic in the eyes of the committee, which gave me some relief, especially that this festival was the first to receive the film after the end of its production. Moreover, it is a hybrid film that holds on to typical narration by diversifying styles and creating intersections between feature and documentary, to form an exceptional simulation of an exceptional reality.
Making this film took you five years, from 2015 till 2019, what difficulties faced you during the execution of this project?
Working on a project that took five years is a tremendous effort, so many questions pop up in your head over the course of such duration. Your relationship with the film suffers great confusion, from habituation to familiarity and denial, in addition to more ridiculous challenges, like the absence of enough electricity to work for example, while alternative solutions are not always available, not to mention the outrageous technical poverty, of which the film industry suffers as a whole, even more so the independent part of it, and of course, this refers to the Syrian industry. This experience proved to me that filmmaking is not only a desire, but a need, and if the filmmaker does not feel that need, the film will never come into being.
After all this effort, what does this prize mean to you?
The film is complete when it is seen, what is most important to me, is that the language I have presented, has been read by a recipient from a culture, which is foreign to mine, and that it was able to reach him, meaning that the film as a product –even though its story is local- speaks to a human being, regardless of his language and culture. The other thing about this film, is that it is independent, and made with personal efforts of its makers, with financial help from my family and friends, while most of the participators in the project, offered their services voluntarily without pay, however, this experience came into fruition and saw the light, reaching the honoring and opening doors.
What effect did the (Sardine’s Trying to Fly) experience have on you after years of work?
On a humanitarian level, the film provided me with the experience of a life time, during which I met with many artists, who cooperated together in the stages of making the film, they are true assets in life, in addition to this being a journey, which I still walk alongside the film, and I have reached the marketing stage.
Proving one’s self
This film is considered a continuance of your previous film (The Tunnel), in relation to processing the lives of the displaced, it also came as an answer to a question you asked yourself: Can I become a filmmaker? What is the cause of this question?
I start with saying that I do not know if this film is really a continuance of (The Tunnel), though it might seem like that, because of the documentary line, but the formula is different. However, in regards to the question: (Can I be a filmmaker?), I have had this feeling since shooting the film (Why?), produced by the General Organization of Cinema, within the project (Youth Cinema Support) in 2012. I was not satisfied with my experience then, and that is a personal feeling, because reaching satisfaction is difficult, and cinema taught me to see my mistakes, so I can be rid of them. So, I bought a (Canon D600) camera with some money I earned from working as a co-director, and I made (The Tunnel), which is a 25 min documentary, produced by Poor Film in 2013.
Did (The Tunnel) answer your question?
No, because, instead of answering the question, I have found that this experience has thrown more question in my face, most important of which is: (why do we make films?). These question are the motives to create a film actually, and the solution is not in the answer, but in the experience.
(The Tunnel) is a short documentary, in which you captured the lives of the displaced, in one of the commercial tunnels in Tartouss. How did people react with you while you were filming their ever day life?
What attracted me to this film, is my search of a film-worthy idea. You have to trust tomorrow completely whilst holding a camera and looking for a film. I am not an optimist in life, but, when I found the tunnel, and I say (found) because it is only 200 meters away from my parents’ house in Tartouss, nobody knew about it, or that there is an underground community, inhabited by families, above whom the city roads lay. This was really a shock that resembles the reality we are living…When I went down to the tunnel, the people welcomed me whole-heartedly. I even trained some children and boys on using the camera, and they were helping me capture the scenes. We were not manufacturing the scenes, we were only looking for them and hurrying to capture them.
(The Tunnel) was made according to the rules of the (Dogma) cinema, which is a simple profound and completely independent cinema, far from special effects or professional luxury. You were directing, filming and handling all technical matters on your own, is this not a tiring mission from your point of view?
I should mention the major role played by friends (Ward Haider, Ibrahim Melhem and Ayham Saleh) to drive the film into realization, but yes, in the filming stage, I was performing everything on my own, and I think this is the first experience of its kind. While in regards to tiredness, actually, I do not know if the concept of fatigue is just. For me, I feel tired when I am surrounded by my thoughts, more than I do when I confront them.
You lived with the displaced for two months in the tunnel to make your film, what are the psychological and emotional effects that touched you in this experiences?
I believe I did not move from my usual life to the tunnel, because I was possessed with it. It is not a process of going out of reality, then going back in, but a process of searching for reality and filming it.
Do you believe cinema is capable of changing reality?
We cannot change reality with cinema alone, besides that art’s relationship with change is controversial, and it is a long and complicated movement to establish ideological, esthetical, moral and philosophical values through art. So, I do not assert that we can change reality with art, but, I am sure that art protects the concept of change and makes it closer to reality.
After (The Tunnel), you presented (Julia) within the Youth Cinema Support Project. It is a short film about the psychological effects of capture on one the prisoners, whom were freed from the hold of terrorists. And you took a backwards narration approach from end to beginning, what led you to make this choice?
A return towards motives, for time is digressing, but the story is evolving. Everything that is happening is taking us backwards. We were making a film in 2014 to either talk about the future or the past, there is no difference, and we wanted to say that something abnormal is taking place in this story, in this moment.
Diversity in methods
You diversify your directive methods in every new film. For example, in the part you made in the film (Memory Nostalgia) called (I don’t like the color Red), you used methods from the new French wave in processing the story. Does the film pose the method on you, or is it your desire to experiment and challenge yourself?
In (I don’t like the color Red) that is based in the seventies, I worked on alienating the local tale visually from frames of space and time, which was originally justified in the story with the entrance of new key characters that have a different culture, this part attracted me in the script, and made me set sail in narration…it was not an easy task, especially that you have to condense three years, on general and personal levels, to half an hour. So, I tried to transport the film into a much freer and wider space, and I kept away from time, because I could not exist inside it. Each time you move away from time, you create your own point of view in the personal narration of the moment.
Are you not accompanied by doubt concerning your directive decisions while keeping out of the safe zone in narration, and breaking stereotypes of processing in favor of a highly risky methodology?
This is different, for it is a quest in an infinite number of possibilities, and being certain (today) of one of them. This is what makes the choice more difficult, not only that there is innumerable choices, but that you also have to choose one of them.
In your part (I don’t like the color Red), you made vast changes on the script. So, on the matter of the problematic relationship between the writer and the filmmaker, to what extent does the writer stay in ownership of the script of his film, and where is the limits of the filmmakers ability to modify said script?
I cannot answer this question fully, because this is up to the production company and their view of things. Personally, I usually re-read the script and present a processed version, while the company decides if the new version should be accepted or not. Because, often in creative affairs, it is difficult to establish boundaries for people, and creative defense, whether it be by the writer, the filmmaker, or the producer is an honorable and legitimate right, which aims to present a good outcome. I am not one to set limits for anyone, but when I work, I do not set limits to myself either.
How do you evaluate your experience, working with three other filmmakers in making (Memory Nostalgia), are you thinking of doing it again?
I only made one chapter, and am responsible for this chapter alone. I am not the film’s maker as a whole, so I cannot answer this question. I am not evading to answer, but this is the reality of things. Besides, I am also not the first to go through this experience, while doing it again is not far-fetched for myself.
Cinema and War
The stories of your films are all connected to the war on Syria, does this come from your responsibility as a filmmaker to document the present moment?
I moved towards realism, because I believe that what is happening (today) is neither an exceptional nor a fateful partiality in our contemporary reality, even though I certainly hope it does not repeat itself in the future. That is why I was possessed with a desire to record said moment, for it to become one of the documents kept by time, which tells next generations about what happened. But to be honest, I do not believe that my subject is war, as much as it is (Man inside War)
What is you evaluation of what is now known as the Syrian War Cinema?
Cinema, from my point of view, expresses humans, not war. Even if the film’s subject is war, it is in retrospect about a human experiencing war. So, the real question is: do the films that are made in this period, express the experience of Humans inside War? And can we count ten films, which were able to express the suffering of the Syrian person in the course of war objectively and responsibly? The question, of course, is better answered by time.
The project (Memory Nostalgia) was one of the General Organization of Cinema’s efforts to support young filmmakers and amateurs, in addition to other efforts through both the hedge fund and festival to support youth cinema projects. Is the support offered by the organization enough?
The real question is, is the support necessary? The organization’s function does not necessarily include production, for this is also the responsibility of other organizations. In general, Syrian cinema is not well, and the solution, I believe, is not in another new production strategy. Perhaps it is in a different production method, which takes into consideration the conditions of local and international marketing, with joint production mechanisms, that give rise to the cinematic movement, and invests in the resources of both public and private sectors. Meaning that we need a renascence, which no one can single-handedly achieve.
You have a significant experience, making independent cinema, through your private company (Poor Film), how do you evaluate the reality of independent cinema in Syria, what are the horizons of its evolution, and the challenges, with which it is presented?
We are trying to guard the concept of cinema, and everything (today) is receding more and more until its death. We do not want this concept to die, and we realize fully-well, as filmmakers, our need for it, and we know that someday, society well understand its significance. In this regard, talking about challenges is similar to rotating angles, while in reality, we, while backed into the far end of a corner, are not facing mere challenges, but experiencing a struggle to survive.
Tartouss Cinema Club
Let us go back to your beginning. Simon Safieh’s passion for cinema started with Tartouss Cinema Club. What effect did the club have on you?
In the club, I watched, for the first time, cinema that is different from the common norm, where the heroes are real people, who live like us, and go on about their normal lives, not super heroes and epics. Cinema that puts the daily details of these people’s lives under the light and studies them. So, I felt that this cinema expresses me, the teenage young man in a small city on the coast of the Mediterranean sea, who is occupied with the sea and nature. I also felt that this cinema resembles me, and the club drove me to search more for it, then I decided to tell children like me around the world, that there is in fact people who identify with them and understand.
Several, indeed, each time someone asks me this question, I say I do not know. But, there is one film, which I love as if it was my friend. It is a Peruvian film called (The milk of Sorrow) by Claudia Llosa (winner of the golden bear in the festival of Berlin 2009). It is a wonderful artistic experience, which deconstructs the social human tragedy in Peru due to civil war. I remember that when I watched it, I said: (where does a person learn to make films?!)
At the end or our interview, what are the ambitions of Poor Film?
We are preparing to launch a website, which will be a platform, where Arab young filmmakers can find books about cinema, publish their articles, analysis, critical reviews of effectual films in the history of the seventh art and scenarios of classic films in their native languages. We are working on this project since last year, and it will be ready in a month’s time. We are also studying the possibility of a project to produce a new film.