Soudade Kaadan is set to make history on Tuesday when her latest film, The Day I Lost My Shadow, becomes the first Syrian film ever to screen in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
The Venice premiere is just the beginning of a prestigious festival journey that will also see the film screen at A-list festivals in Toronto, Los Angeles, and London.
'The horror of Syria now is beyond my imagination'
The movie is set at the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2012 and, perhaps unsurprisingly, draws heavily on Kaadan’s own experiences of the situation. What is perhaps more striking than the horror Kaadan clearly witnessed, however, is the horror she didn’t. Kaadan escaped Syria shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, and she seems eager to almost downplay her experiences, and insists she is not in a position to even contemplate making a film about the current disaster zone that is her home country: “I left Syria in 2012. I was lucky, I got out quite early in the war, and that’s why I don’t try and talk about Syria beyond 2012,” she says. “The horror of Syria now is beyond imagination. There was violence and people being put in prison and we were scared when I was there, but compared to Syria now this is nothing. It was like Disneyland when I left.”
The Day I lost My Shadow is Kaadan's first fictional feature detailing the situation in her homeland, following last year's documentary Obscure. The film has been seven years in the making – partly because Kaadan says she felt unable to make films immediately after her escape from Syria, and she makes no apologies for returning to a subject that is, understandably, very close to her heart: "I'm Syrian and for me, what else can I tell?" She asks. "One day maybe I can tell another story, but right now, what else can I say? Right now this is all there is for me to tell. There is nothing this urgent for me or my family, my community, my friends. It's not like I'm some outsider looking in. This is our life."
All she wants is to get some gas
The director is a little cagey about giving too many plot details away, though it seems clear that the film will be the story of a typical person’s experience of the war, rather than a polemic for any of the many convoluted sides in the ongoing conflict: “It’s set in 2012, right at the start of war. The lead character is a woman who doesn’t care about politics, all she wants is to get some gas, because it’s the only way of heating and cooking, so she goes out to find a bottle of gas,” says Kaadan. “That’s when she learns that people lose their shadow during the war.”
Kaadan’s description of people “losing their shadow” during the war is a little cryptic, but she’s playing her cards close to her chest until the premiere. She does reveal that she spent nine months in post-production making people quite literally “lose their shadow” on screen, but as far what this means in terms of plot, we’ll have to wait and see.
'It was very hard to make this film'
With plot details under a typically tight pre-premiere embargo, we move onto the practicalities of shooting the film. Understandably, Kaadan was unable to shoot in Syria due to the war, so she shot mostly in Lebanon, close to the Syrian border, with post-production taking place in Beirut, France and Greece.
The film was made on a limited budget, but Kaadan insists she did not let that stop her from making the very best film she could: “It was very hard to make this film, so we’re very proud,” she says.
“Most of the good Syrian actors are scattered all around the globe, and although we couldn’t shoot in Syria we were very committed to finding locations that actually looked like Syria, even if that meant moving locations every two or three days. The lead actress was an asylum seeker based in France, another was in Berlin, one in Lebanon, others were still in Syria. It was a big mission bringing in all these actors from four different countries, but we managed it. There are so few films coming out of Syria, other than foreign documentaries going in and then leaving, but this film is Syrian directed, produced, Syrian cast. We’re really very proud.”
Kaadan’s pride is justifiably placed, so I feel almost unforgivably cynical when I ask whether the director feels the film’s subject matter may have swayed Venice’s submissions panel when it came to selecting the film for competition. The director is refreshingly honest in admitting that her film’s topicality probably didn’t hurt its chances, but it’s not a matter she wishes to dwell on: “I submitted it and you never know who will see it or how it will go,” she says.
“I didn’t expect it, honestly. It’s a really tough competition. I’m sure the subject matter may have helped to a degree, but honestly, this is Venice, it’s a tough competition – as tough as it gets. If it wasn’t a good film they wouldn’t have selected it, and certainly not in competition. Maybe out of competition, who knows? But it’s in competition. Maybe the subject matter helped too, but let’s not talk about that – it’s just a good film. That’s what we should talk about.”
On Tuesday, the judges will have the opportunity to decide for themselves, and with the movie already having been picked up for international distribution by French sales agent Stray Dogs, the signs are looking good.