INTERVIEW: Syrian filmmakers talk about Mare Nostrum, sea of human tragedy and hope

Lina El Wardani from London, Wednesday 5 Apr 2017

Award-winning short film Mare Nostrum opens with a father pushing his daughter into the sea, shocking the audience at the BBC Arabic Festival. Ahram Online talked to the directors

Mare Nostrum
(Photo: still from Mare Nostrum)

Mare Nostrum is a fictional short film, written, produced and directed by Syrian couple Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf, who now reside in Jordan after leaving war-torn Syria.

The film, which depicts a Syrian father and his daughter, won the best short fiction film award at the third BBC Arabic Festival last month.

In Mare Nostrum, silence plays a pivotal role; the high-quality cinematography and the plot are very powerful, making it a captivating silent movie.

The silence is eerie and troubling, just like the Syrian refugee crisis.

The film begins by shocking the viewer, with a father throwing his own daughter into deep water. The audience reacted strongly, some gasping or crying, others holding their breath.  

Ahram Online met the film's two directors during the festival in London, to talk about the film, lost dreams and found hopes.

Mare Nostrum
(Photo: still from Mare Nostrum)

Ahram Online (AO): Why did you choose this shocking way to start your film?

Rana Kazkaz (RK): I needed to shock the audience from the start because the judgement against the refugees and migrants is too harsh. It is horrifying. They risk their lives and to criticise them and judge them is so difficult.

I wanted to see if the audience is going to judge the man for throwing his own daughter into the water, for sleeping with her in the same bed. I wanted to see if they going to judge him for the lack of conversation?

The audience is not the same after seeing the movie. The shock pulls people in and gets them out of their assumptions in the end.

I wanted that emotional involvement from the beginning. This is fiction, drama symbolism. I just can’t imagine stepping my foot on this boat.

AO: The boat is what triggered the idea of the film, right?

RK: Yes, we were watching the news one day and it was another boat sinking. My heart sinks with it every time; it is a very tough decision to gather your life and go on that boat. And where do you go after that? Who is waiting for you at the other end?

Anas Khalaf (AK): You know that the boat sank and people drowned even though they were wearing life jackets. But the jackets sold to them in Turkey were made of cotton. Who do you blame?

RK: Many people asked me: where is the mother of this child? Well, the mother passed away. She died in the war or died on a boat. The cinema that we love is like an onion; you peel it layer by layer. It is an art of bringing someone in and not letting them go until the end.

AO: The movie seemed to engage the audience from beginning to end, and it made it to a lot of festivals too. Did you expect this success?

AK: Yes, it made it to 30 film festivals so far and yes, we have had very good feedback.

But did we expect it? We knew we had something strong but were not sure what the reaction would be. The reaction sometimes surprised us.

But at the same time, the film was not selected for many other festivals as sometimes the jury didn’t believe it could happen. It is too extreme for some people. I once heard one member of the audience say that this is a bad Muslim father, although we have nothing in the film that gives away the religion of the protagonist. He could be anything and he is a very kind and loving father.

I once also heard the reaction that in the 14 minutes of this film, it tells the world everything that happened during the five years of the Syrian revolution. It is a love story.

Earlier this year, the film was screened during the Sharm El-Sheikh Film Festival and the audience loved it.

AO: But this is not your first film, is it?

RK: We made five short films before but this is our first successful one. And now we are working on our first feature film. We are going to Cannes in fact. Our film was accepted for the Cine Foundation Atelier among 15 film projects and we hope to shoot in May next year. It is about the first three months of the Syrian revolution.

AO: Why did you choose this silent form with no dialogue?

RK: We love cinema with very little dialogue. The film has a more universal message and I found there was no need for words or subtitles. And we choose to end with the AP footage to show how the media speaks nonstop without saying anything really.

AO: When there was still hope, you are clearly very emotional about the Syrian revolution and the destruction and resulting migration. How do you manage to distance yourselves and create a film about something you clearly are emotionally involved in?

RK: That’s the job of the artists. We are involved, attached and affected but connecting with other humans is beautiful. We were personally in a very dark place when we produced Mare Nostrum but we managed to create a different life for ourselves and coming out of the darkness we find hope again. That’s how we Syrians live.

AO: How did you cast Ziad Bakri, the main protagonist?

RK: He is a famous Palestinian actor and he comes from a Palestinian acting family. He was in a French series, Le Bureau des Légendes, with Anas and we found him amazing. It was very interesting working with him because often we found it very difficult to say "cut". He is sad, vulnerable and very bright.

AO: Did you find it difficult casting your own daughter, Zayn Khalaf, in the film?

RK: We didn’t want to cast her at all. We held auditions and chose a young girl but there was no chemistry at all between her and Ziad. Then one day we invited him for dinner at our house and they hit it off. Then she wanted to play the role and he wanted her to play it. It was a very difficult yet amazing experience for her. She matured a lot and had a great time during the production.

AO: But didn’t you think it’s too much for a little girl to be involved in this dark film, instead of playing and enjoying her childhood, especially after fleeing Syria and settling in Jordan?

RK: She was playing. Ziad brought his family and during the breaks, she and Ziad’s son were building sandcastles.

And indeed, the film was so dark, yet making it was fun and joy. Ziad knew the success of the film relied on the chemistry between them so he and his family spent a lot of time connecting with her aside from work.

AO: Did she watch the film?

RK: Yes she did. In the beginning it was hard for her to watch the film with an audience as she was vulnerable, but now she is proud of her film and her role.

AO: Why did you choose Amman after leaving Syria?

AK: Because it is easier to make films in Amman than anywhere else. There is no censorship, while in Beirut it is complicated.

AO: And finally, where does the name of the film, Mare Nostrum, come from?

RK: It is Latin for "our sea" and it also referenced the Mediterranean specifically. The Mediterranean is where different countries, different regimes and different ways of life meet. It is also the name of the Italian rescue operation that assists sinking boats.

Mare Nostrum
(Photo: still from Mare Nostrum)

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