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Thread: SIMPLE AS WATER (Megan Mylan 2021)

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    SIMPLE AS WATER (Megan Mylan 2021)

    MEGAN MYLAN: SIMPLE AS WATER (2021)


    FAYEZ, CENTER, AND MOTHER SAMRA, IN SIMPLE AS WATER

    TRAILER

    A look at Syrian refugees at various stages

    There are many documentaries about refugees, who have become a troublingly large segment of the world's population. A particularly comprehensive one is Ai Weiwei's Human Flow: he traveled to nearly all the main sites where refugees are generated and gathered. An unusually thorough coverage of the trajectory of a family from limbo to limbo and country to country, waiting and ultimately finding residency in Germany, is Hasan Fazili's Midnight Traveler, where a family filmed itself. Another extreme, which I found impressive as a film, is Gianfranco Rosi's Notturno (Nocturne), whose title indicates what it is: a world-spanning, sad, observational documentary film that's more like a poem or a novel, intercutting scenes of devastation and separation in varied, haunting, perversely beautiful ways.

    Megan Mylan is known for the prize-winning 2003 Lost Boys of Sudan. Here, she looks at Syrian refugees in limbo by singling out several in different places and filming their current lives. Each is filmed so intimately the whole cannot be called a purely "observational" film but more of a collaboration, presented in the observational style. It provides no explanations besides a name and a dateline for each segment. It samples the gamut of Syrian refugee life: the twin limbos of camps in Turkey and Greece; in the putative promised lands of Germany and the USA; in the belly of the beast, living uncertainly in Syria still.

    First is Yasmin, a handsome, wistful woman, newly arrived in a port-side tent refugee encampment in Athens, near the water and an overpass, with her four handsome children, ages 5, 6, 7 and 9, three boys and the oldest a girl. Yasmin is in daily touch by phone with her husband in Germany seeking asylum,. There is hope of their reuniting with him there some time, though it will take months of waiting and bureaucratic processing. Another young boy has been left behind.

    Second is Samra, in Reyhanli, Turkey. Samra's face is anguished. She has five kids. Her husband ran a small shop in Syria and "worked with the government." He was arrested, and they have not heard from him since. Samra works from four a.m. as a fieldworker, leaving Fayez, the 12-year-old eldest of her five young boys, in charge. She registers them to go to an orphanage (of Syrian children; we see the interview), because she feels she cannot cope. But Fayez, visiting it, will not go. He is too articulate, too aware. "I've lost my father, I can't lose my mother," he says, and he proclaims the orphanage "a life of humiliation." We leave things uncertain, thus.

    Omar is a burly young man in Pennsylvania, USA working as a warehouse truck driver, daily talking to someone elsewhere in Arabic. He visits his younger brother Abdulrahman ("Abi"), who lost part of one leg in a bombing (we see flashback footage of the traumatic events), and is at a boarding school, doing pretty well in the first year of high school. Both speak fluent American English. Both await results of separate asylum applications, but if they are to stay together, might need to go to Canada because of Omar's former Free Syrian Army membership, which makes him someone America brands as formerly involved in "terrorist activity." One sees a lot of vigor and courage here, but Omar points out to Abdulrahman he'd better focus on college if he wants to be successful; he doesn't have the best job because he doesn't have "the credentials."

    A fourth family glimpse is set in Syria, where a mother, Diaa, living in Masyaf (مصياف), in the northwest, with her husband and young son is constantly searching online for signs of their older boy, whom they sent to Egypt to escape the craziness, but without their knowledge, sneaked back into Syria, and they fear is imprisoned or dead.

    A final segment takes us to the husband of Yasmin in a little town in Germany living with a bunch of other Syrian men. We can appreciate Mylan's several years of patient following-up here because we get to see him reunited with his wife and four pretty children. As in Midnight Traveler, perhaps more easily, the family has gotten permission to live in Germany.

    The point of Mylan's film emerges as not so much to tell a story or explain details of each loving, caring family, but to provide a sketch, a snapshot, a vivid glimpse so we can look at them, get the feel of their affect, and ponder the many ups and downs of Syrian refugee life and the survival of love through it all. This is a work of intense humanity, but its glimpses and its follow-throughs are limited. Like Rosi's Notturno but more uniform, it has a structure that's elegant containing great emotion with a bit of Emily Dickinson's "formal feeling."

    The cinematography feels consistent though by three different people. They are highly qualified: Lars Skree (The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence), veteran Michael Chin (early Wayne Wang collaborator, DP of, among many others, Eyes on the Prize); and "Rafia Salameh," a cinematographer working inside Syria under a pseudonym for safety.

    Simple As Water, 99 mins., debuted at Tribeca Jun. 20, 3021, also in DOC Fest and Nov. 6, on SFFILM’s Doc Stories, it is on HBO starting Nov. 16. Reviewed Nov. 11, 2021 by Dennis Harvey for Variety, and I relied on his review for some details due to lack of a press kit. Metacritic rating: 84%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-17-2021 at 11:33 PM.

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