There are personal films and then there is Republic of Silence. The new documentary from filmmaker Diana El Jeiroudi is a revealing account of her life and her relationship to her native Syria that has been a lifetime in the making.
As the opening captions explain, El Jeiroudi, 44, was given a film camera by her father when she was 7 and has been capturing images ever since.
It’s little wonder that when we speak a couple of weeks before the movie has its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, El Jeiroudi is still feeling her way through this three-hour piece.
“It’s very hard to describe the film for myself,” she confesses. “I’m too close to it.” She pauses, contemplating the notion that inviting people “to watch something they can relate to” is a very vulnerable, exposing experience.
With the film playing out of competition, El Jeiroudi is nevertheless delighted that the venerable Italian festival has selected it.
“I don’t think there is a better launching pad for a film that is demanding and odd,” she says. "It’s not the usual cookie. It’s definitely a journey, a trip. It takes you along. You drive along with the film.”
It’s an apt metaphor for a documentary that’s been in production since 2010. “It was a film [made] on the road,” she says.
Divided into chapters, Republic of Silence guides the audience through El Jeiroudi’s childhood, as she reflects on her school days (“The teachers are mean,” she grumbles), and her later years in Syria.
“Suddenly, I feel I’ve become unblind,” she notes, as the subject moves into more terrifying territory. In 2012, her partner, fellow filmmaker Orwa Nyrabia, was about to board a flight to Cairo at Damascus International Airport when he was arrested by Syrian authorities.
After losing all contact with him, El Jeiroudi endured utter panic. "It’s still painful,” she admits, eight years after it happened.
Revisiting the incident for the film wasn’t easy. “It takes a toll on you … but it was impossible to take this out," she says.
The film offers a ray of hope, as directors and actors, including Robert De Niro and Michelle Rodriguez, came together to pressure the government into releasing Nyrabia, which he was after three weeks.
“It was touching and overwhelming,” she says. “It was humbling.” Even now she still meets people who filmed and posted videos saying "Free Orwa", and thanks them for their assistance.
Three years earlier, Nyrabia had been involved in a public demand for democracy in Syria, and filmmakers such as Mike Leigh and Iran’s Mohsen Makhmalbaf had shown their support. “We always had this faith that filmmakers form a community, or a family, around the world," El Jeiroudi says. "This is how we keep attached in this business that is really tough.”
It’s an industry she’s been embroiled in for two decades. In 2002, El Jeiroudi started a film production company with Nyrabia and later established Dox Box, a documentary film festival in Syria.
“It’s addictive, when you are part of a community,” she says. “It’s kind of tribal, I would say. I mean, even with all the disputes and fighting, to have a common goal, to have something that everybody can come together, think about and so on … I don’t think you can leave that behind. Once you do it, you cannot just leave and do your own thing and feel isolated from the rest. It’s both empowering and addictive.”
Along the way, El Jeiroudi has facilitated the visions of others, producing films (including Gianfranco Rosi’s prize-winning refugee drama Notturno). She has also directed before; her 2007 documentary Dolls: A Woman From Damascus was a quirky hour-long study of the Arab Barbie doll, Fulla.
But there can be no question that Republic of Silence is a step up in her filmmaking journey, an intimate life-spanning odyssey.
She and Nyrabia now live in Berlin, establishing themselves among the German filmmaking community. But does she want to return to Syria and does she hope for a turn in fortunes for the beleaguered country?
“There has to be,” she says. “But do I want to go back to that Syria? No, not at all. I want to have a country that is fair for the people. I want them to feel safe, home. And I think we’re far away from there. But I don’t see it as a lost case.”
She calls it “a very, very tough road” for her homeland. “Before, it looked like a country. But it wasn’t a country. I’m hoping that one day it will become a real country.”
I ask if making Republic of Silence over all these years, reflecting on her life in Syria and her escape to Germany, has been cathartic? “Yeah, could be!” she says, her eyes lighting up.
As she says in the documentary, “I take something from every person I film.” The inference is that filmmakers can’t stay detached and that it’s impossible not to be moved by those you connect with on film.
“You work with people, you are very intimate to them, you parachute in their life, sometimes, you spend endless days with them, and you accompany them silently, in moments of weakness and vulnerability, moments of joy," she says.
"You saw it with kids being born and kids dying, and you become part of them, but they also become part of you. And it changes you, for the worse, for the better – it doesn’t matter – but it really changes you.”
Now, with Republic of Silence about to be launched into the world, El Jeiroudi is at a junction in her long road from Damascus, so to speak.
“You can imagine how much of a relief it is,” she says. “I’m very happy it’s finished and hopefully soon I can sleep.” Has she had any thoughts about what’s next? “Ideas come and go,” she says. “I’m always fascinated by human stories.”
Republic of Silence will premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Tuesday