Film Movement DVD Review: In Syria (2017) & Le Pain (2001)

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“Syrians seeking refuge in Europe right now have no choice but to abandon their homes and country. They all come from places for which we lack images,” In Syria director Philippe Van Leeuw explained in an interview, sharing that, with the Berlin Film Festival Audience Award Winner, he hoped to “shine a light on the dignity of civilian populations.”

Inspired by a real story a friend told him in 2012 about her father being trapped inside his apartment in Aleppo for three weeks as his neighborhood suddenly turned into a war zone, in the film, Van Leeuw ensures we feel the danger even before we see a single image by filling the soundtrack with explosions and gunfire that play over Syria's dark opening credits.

Set over the course of twenty-four frantic hours, in this neorealist docudrama, Van Leeuw pays homage to the man whose experience sparked the idea for the picture with bookended shots of a paternal character trapped inside his daughter-in-law's Damascus apartment getting up every morning for his ritual smoke.

Turning her one-family apartment into a barricaded shelter, with her husband away, Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass) vows to protect her three children, neighbors, family, and friends at all costs.

Pinned down by snipers and jeopardized by bandits going from floor to floor, after Oum's house cleaner sees one of their temporary residents get shot at the start of the day, it's the first bad omen of more misfortune to come. With each resident knowing that if they get caught, they could risk everyone else, the group strives to get through their most dangerous day yet, hoping for either a chance to escape or ever illusive help to come.

Anchored by the always excellent Abbass (currently making her American small screen debut on HBO's smash hit Succession) and The Insult's Diamand Bou Abboud, Van Leeuw rounds out his cast with actual Syrian refugees.

Timelier than ever given not only the ongoing war and refugee crisis but especially because it coincides by the Trump administration's barbaric treatment of immigrants, without wasting a single frame, In Syria remains heart-stoppingly intense for its entire eighty-six minute running time.

Careful not to venture into exploitative territory during one especially harrowing scene, although Van Leeuw remains entirely focused on faces and actions rather than fill the entire frame with assault, the horrific extended sequence is sure to stay with viewers long after the film is over.

Under-reported in the states, Van Leeuw's powerful docudrama gives viewers a stark look at life during hellish wartime, all the while applauding the courage of everyday citizens to do whatever it takes to fight back and stay strong.

Rounding out the disc with Le Pain, a well-made roughly twenty minute short directed by and starring Hiam Abbass, while this pairing of feature and short from Film Movement is the opposite of uplifting, together they paint a wonderful portrait of the underappreciated strength of mothers who routinely put the needs of everyone else – especially children and men – before their own.

Centering on a tragedy that befalls a family after they move to the French countryside, as the first of four short films made by the star, Le Pain is a consummate work from 2001.

Intriguing and character driven, Le Pain, could very well have served as the first act of a feature in its own right that I would loved to have seen. And while it isn't likely to be picked up again now seventeen years later, I certainly hope its reemergence on this new Film Movement DVD will give Abbass more opportunities to tell the stories she wants on both sides of the lens.

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