Filmmaker Sara Fattahi on Bringing a Woman’s
Perspective of War
In Conversation with Pamela Cohn
Watching Sara Fattahi’s films is reminiscent of the experience of reading the stories of Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian novelist known for his multi-generational family tales told through a magical realist lens. Sara’s films are intimately told narrative accounts from inside the households of her female relatives and female friends. The penetrating shots and closely-lensed framing of the faces of Sara’s subjects—all women—and the daily household rituals of making Turkish coffee, smoking, talking, praying, and watching soap operas, present a circumscribed, mundane existence residing side by side with the world of Sara’s imagination. Hallucinatory aspects of shock and displacement take hold. The once-familiar surroundings of her native city of Damascus are under siege and memories from the past and present collapse against one another.
When Sara’s début feature Coma was invited to the 2015 Viennale, odd as it was, she immediately felt a kinship with the city of Vienna. Upon returning to Beirut, where she had edited and finished post-production on Coma and started shooting Chaos, the second feature of a trilogy, Sara contemplated a move to Berlin in search of a more stable place to develop and produce her films. However, at the airport she changed her ticket at the last minute and flew to Vienna instead. She has made her home there but she is separated from her family who remain in Syria. Sara’s mother and grandmother are the protagonists in Coma, and we see how close and dear the three women are to one another.
The ongoing civil war in Syria, which began in 2011, continues to escalate even though Damascus is relatively safe. This only means that the sound and smoke from the bombs the family sees and hears from their apartment fall within close distance instead of directly into their home. In Coma, three generations of women are in self-imposed exile together in the midst of the city center. The film received funding support from Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts, a non-profit civil organization launched in early 2013 to support and help produce documentaries and experimental films from Syrian makers, something that had never existed before war and terror took hold of the country.
Chaos centers on another pair of women to whom Sara is closely bound. Raja is a close companion of Sara’s mother and Sara’s known Raja since childhood. Dressed in black, head covered, opaque frames enveloping not only her eyes but almost her entire face, Raja is self-sequestered in her own very dark Damascus apartment, grieving for her murdered son. Sara met Hiba at art school; Hiba sought refuge in the north of Sweden after the death of her brother. The film also takes place in Vienna, Sara’s adopted home, and with the words and spirit of Viennese poet and author Ingeborg Bachmann and the physical presence of Viennese actress Jaschka Lämmert, these four ghostly female presences help Sara to explore ideas of home and exile, perpetual dislocation, and how war can steal one’s memories.
When I spoke to Sara in December 2018, she was home in Vienna preparing the third installment of the trilogy. As in the first two films, Calm will be based on a narrative script written by Sara, and the main protagonists will be women she knows.
PC: Chaos takes place partly in Damascus but also in Vienna and a small town in the north of Sweden. In each location, we find women who have cordoned themselves off from the outside world, even when there isn’t a war going on outside such as in Hiba’s case. Can you talk a bit about the decisions around where you set up your camera and how you would bring yourself into the frame? Even though there are long observational moments, you’re also addressed directly by your grandmother and mother in Coma, as well as by Hiba and Raja in Chaos. However, we only see you in fragments or hear your voice off-camera most of the time. So much is mysterious about your relationships with Raja and Hiba.
SF: Specifically, my interest is in showing the female perspective of the war. Chaos presents itself as a portrait of three people scattered in various places and Vienna is where I live now. But I’m much more interested in the female interior instead, in other words where women happen to be based most of the time. It so happens I’m surrounded more by women than I am by men. This was the case in Damascus as well. What’s the definition, let’s say, of this world only inhabited by women? The media, in general, sidelines women’s stories in favor of politics. There are no stories of us in the general media landscape.
In Chaos, the idea was to illustrate a state of mind, not the events taking place in Syria, Sweden, or Austria. It’s more about my state of mind, those women I film, and also, somehow, a portrait of my nightmares. My idea was to connect with, understand, and also debate about the catastrophe we’re having in Syria. The camera was not just an object to record something physical. I considered it my eyes, my brain, my body and how the physical movement of the camera is an extension of me.
However, in the middle of Chaos, there is a scene of me in the MRI machine. I have to say I kind of hate the word “metaphor” and hate to use metaphors in my films. [Laughs.] But in this case, there is both a physical and metaphorical scanning because I want to see myself—my whole self. The films, for me, are experiences that enable me to let go of something, my fears, anxieties, even dreams. I didn’t use this conceit in Coma because I didn’t really see that until making Chaos. So this is where you see an extreme close-up of my face, just like I frame the other women. The detachment from self is a true state of being. But this was a way to put the parts back together to make my image whole instead of the fragmented parts you see in the first film. That constant fragmentation is destructive.
In cinema, you can collect the sensations, memories and dreams, everything you left behind and knit them together in one piece.
PC: In Chaos you’re also playing with the idea of doppelgänger, even in the ritualized way you echo some of the domestic tasks in Coma such as the opening scene of coffee making. In your own apartment in Vienna, you imitate the way your mother makes coffee in Damascus. Are these ways of giving physical heft to your existence, to take on habits that are imprinted and that bring you comfort? I found that imitative impulse to be very poignant, a simple gesture to bring an absent person closer to you.
SF: Yes, I want to invite my past into this new home or this new flat where I am at the moment. I want to feel home. This is one of the only possibilities to feel home, to cook the coffee the way my mother does and I imitate the same beginning shots in both films. It was my attempt to build some kind of bridge from there to here. But really I don’t feel home in this place. All I had were these materials and some thoughts and memories when I left Damascus to come here, an attempt to bring back what the violence in Syria took away. I’m trying to tell the story of how I remember it and that’s very fragmented. The war is the actual division, this violent interruption.
PC: In Coma there are these familiar domestic tools you can use to describe your grandmother’s state of mind that you don’t really have at hand in Chaos, specifically what manifests as her nostalgic attachment to watching the television—she is not listening to news reports. When she’s not praying or talking to your mother, she’s watching old melodramas as your camera lingers on her face. Did she and your mother understand what you were trying to capture?
SF: What you hear coming from the TV is the soundtrack to an old black and white Egyptian film. Most of the audio coming from the television is from a film called There is a Man in Our House, an Egyptian drama from 1961 by Henry Barakat. I wanted it to be the sound of memory because growing up in this flat I heard these sounds from almost every corner of the flat, this canon of black and white films from Egypt. I wanted to create an atmosphere where I was watching my family move around like ghosts with that sound in the background. It doesn’t really sync with the image but I feel home when I hear that sound; I feel safe. It also contrasted so much with the sounds coming from the city. Damascus was safer than any other city in Syria but we still heard bombs almost all the time. It became something to hang onto to feel safe, something to make me feel I was still alive.
This film was challenging in many ways in the way making a film about people you are so familiar with can be. Creating distance is very difficult. I had to make a plan every day and turn the flat into a kind of bunker. In a war zone you choose a place to observe that is safe and from there I could observe their movements, observe them as human beings, but not necessarily people related to me. After some time, they were very easygoing with the idea of me moving around with my equipment so they never really knew when I was shooting and when I had finished shooting. When they finally saw the film, they were relaxed. The only part that surprised them was the old footage of my grandfather placed as if he were sitting there with us, talking to the camera as if he’s still in the same room. This is very emotional for me to talk about because I haven’t really seen them since that time. I just saw them in Beirut for a few days this past year. Coma is a home I take with me everywhere I am. So from them to me, this film is a huge gift.
PC: Hiba’s presence in Chaos is magnetic and powerful. Trauma defines her but it’s also her shield. Oddly, she reminded me of your mother, something in her eyes and in the way she spoke to you as if there was no reason at all to hide anything.
SF: Even the city itself is female because in Arabic the word for city is feminine [madina]. When we talk about empowerment in Arabic literature, we use this metaphor of cities as female. Raja, who is in Damascus, is my mother’s best friend and I’ve known her very well since I was small. I also knew her son all his life. I did not want to make a film about people I don’t know. I needed to know them. I am interested in personal films. But my films are not autobiographical—they’re not about me, but they are from me and made by me.
Hiba is a close friend. I needed that deep connection and that intimacy to tell this story. There could not be any kind of wall between the protagonists and me. The mystery you felt with Jaschka—Jaschka is meant to be the doppelgänger of the spirit of Bachmann.
My style of working is to write more than I shoot and I write a lot. I write them as fictions with scenes. I’m not trained in cinema but it’s my way to control my shots, to control my concept, and to try to understand which perspective I should use so I can enter the film. Chaos was more about this process of writing and slowly, slowly, it took form including this space that I wanted represented physically. That’s why I asked Jaschka to be a part of it. It was about the circumambulation she makes in Vienna as if she was guiding me through the city. As I said before, it’s a state of mind so she also could not be there at all, in fact. This represents my imagination or my nightmare. But she could also be my doppelgänger or Hiba’s or Raja’s. She has many aspects to her.
PC: We see Jaschka mostly from the back or in quarter profile, and then brief glimpses of her face. We never hear her speak—or we do, but it’s in Bachmann’s voice. This is a superb actor because her performance becomes key to the whole film. So whatever you discussed together about her posture and body hold so much expression in them that speaks of anxiety, fear, and pain on so many different levels. But she’s hidden from us most of the time.
SF: [Laughs.] I also always hide myself.
PC: Yes, unfortunately it’s a very feminine trait to do that. Every single woman you film is in hiding whether it’s self-imposed exile or detachment as you put it— there in body but emotionally somewhere far away.
SF: Working with Jaschka wasn’t easy but it was exciting for me because it was the first time I worked with an actress. I was also asking her to be a part of something where she hadn’t seen any of the materials so only had to go on what I asked of her. In a general way, she knew the story and what I had done so far. In the film, it would seem that the scenes with her take place all in one day, from early morning until late at night, even though we shot together for a week. This woman just appears in the middle of the city but the more time we spend with her, the more we are meant to realize the exhaustion coming from her body language, that she’s collapsing in a way, holding herself up until she reaches this underground station and then disappears. Jaschka took herself to those states of mind. And then Raya [Yamisha] and I worked together to reduce all of that into what you see in the film. As far as not seeing her face and her silence, in Syria we say that when a dead person visits you in a dream, he or she doesn’t speak to you. That person is always silent. And you don’t see his or her face clearly. I used this tradition of how we deal with people who have passed away for those scenes we selected with Jaschka. Silence is another language in my films. Jaschka does speak quite loudly, but only with her body.
PC: The polar opposite of this is your portraiture of Hiba. Even though she’s fragile, she’s also very connected to her dream state.
SF: Hiba’s presence is incredible. Her agreement to film with me was a gift, not because I wanted to make a film about her, or her story, or a certain idea about her, but she was essential for me because I needed that kind of treatment too, to connect deeply with somebody so that she could be my mirror. In many ways my time with her was a healing process for both of us. This friendship is really precious on many levels. It goes beyond just the artistic collaboration.
When I decided to go to her home in Sweden, I had zero idea of her environment. But just after a few days, I knew where I wanted to put my camera and the established friendship made it easy to get used to one another again. What surprised me the most when I was shooting with her was that I shot her almost exclusively in extreme close-up. It was only something I realized afterwards, that I had done that subconsciously even though I had written those scenes. It was just me taking sound and filming so when I returned to Vienna and looked at the material it surprised me how all the scenes with those close-ups were very much the same. Some of these close-ups were very close. Somehow it seemed to be a translation of this connection, this intimacy I have with her. But I have to say when I watched the film on a gigantic screen and finally really saw how close I did get I became afraid of my own film. I told my producer Paolo Calamita that I had made a disaster. He’s a friend and told me to calm down, that this is what makes the work unique.
PC: Hiba’s presence can sustain those close-ups. It’s what draws us into her story—and yours—even more deeply. The scene with the two of you in the forest is startling and disturbing on many levels. As Hiba is telling you the story of the episode that revealed how sick she was, your own body gives out on you. Why did you keep that in the film?
SF: The scene where Hiba and I are together in the forest was one of the last days we shot together and I wasn’t doing well. With the atmosphere she created there in the forest and the story she tells, I really had to pull myself together to hold the camera still. When I first watched that scene where I fall down with the camera, I decided not to use it. When I reviewed the materials again, I saw that I hadn’t even realized how badly I was doing. It was, somehow, spooky in many ways for me. I decided I would end the film with that scene because that holds up a part of me that I can distinctly see as a mirror. The camera was so shaky and that illustrated so much of what I was physically feeling in that moment.
PC: Part of what makes it so odd is that Hiba doesn’t really react when you fall down. She’s so caught up in her own story and its particular traumas as you are caught up in yours. It’s a devastating scene in the way that it shows no matter how intimate and close we are with the people around us, no matter how much we think we can share, we are essentially alone each in our own pain, in our own world.
SF: Yes. When I look at that scene now, I think if I had been in Hiba’s situation, maybe I would have reacted—or not reacted—similarly. We are both questioning ourselves in these new lives and we are disconnected. We have also moved through those stages and we are in different realities now. But when I fell down with the camera in my hand, it stayed in my hand and you see in the frame that Hiba is holding her hands together; she’s holding herself. She is fully imprisoned in her own inner world at that moment.
Specifically in Chaos, my obsession was trying to create these feelings with images, to try to film the un-filmable, things you only sense or feel. I wasn’t interested in facts because we all have facts about what’s going on in Syria or elsewhere in any war zone or conflict zone. What’s going on in the human interior zone is something you can’t easily reach. My drive was to try to illustrate alienation because I felt and still do feel like an alien all the time. Even in Syria, I was not like most others. I was also strange in my own country. Here in Europe, I’m “the Syrian”—this is what I’m actually called. This kind of alienation that you hold in yourself wherever you go or wherever you try to orient yourself was what I wanted to try and film. How could I translate that visually? In Coma my obsession was about trying to capture every single moment in the life of my family before losing them. I needed to put my finger on something before it was completely gone.
There is similar alienation but also this isolation and disorientation that comes into play in Chaos. I felt like a newborn, an orphan. This baby has no family. That’s how it felt. These close-ups are there because consciously I knew that’s what I wanted. I had written it down. Subconsciously I was moving my body during filming towards those characters seeking protection for them and from them.
In my country, there is no logic to what is going on now—no logic in any aspect of life in general. Many Syrians have left the country. We are scattered around the world; we are a family that is not living together anymore. That is the truth. There is no way to put all those characters in one place. It’s impossible. I was obligated to accept those conditions and deal with it and to find a way to connect them. I was that connection or bridge, but a broken bridge in many ways, so wherever my presence happened to be, more times than not it was just a space, a space through another dimension, the dimension of imagination.
From Lucid Dreaming by Pamela Cohn. Used with the permission of OR Books.