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Spreading the voices of Syrian refugees

Kaori Hizume

Oct. 19, 2017

A scene from the film A Memory in Khaki takes viewers into the middle of an actual Syrian battlefield. Over 300,000 people have died in the war in Syria since 2011. 6 million people have been forced to flee their homes.

What brought about this tragic situation, and what do the stories of the refugees say?

The film made by Alfoz Tanjour attempts to answer some of those questions. He is a Syrian director who fled the country in 2012. He is now based in Austria, where he creates documentaries.

Last week, he won a prestigious award for the film at the Yamagata Documentary International Film Festival.

Over the course of his career, Alfoz has shown the suffering of Syrians struggling in an oppressed society.

In his 2007 short fictional title A Little Sun, he tells the tragic story of a daughter whose father is an anti-establishment journalist.

A Memory in Khaki, shot over the course of three years, is his latest work. NHK World's Kaori Hizume spoke with Alfoz about what he hopes to convey with the film.

Last week, Alfoz arrived in Japan for the first time. He had been invited to the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival.

But he worried about whether audiences would come to see a film about the situation in Syria.

"For today I am excited, but I wish some people coming this early morning. I am little bit like worry," he says.

To his relief, the theater filled up. And the film had an impact on many audience members.

"It was good to see it," said one. "We've been hearing about the Islamic State group over the past two or three years. But after seeing this film, I realized the situation there is a lot more complicated than I thought. "

Another said, "I think the fact that the director is a refugee himself really added to the depth of the film."

More than just showing the destruction that has ravaged the country, Alfoz wanted to try and find what was behind it.

"All those shocking images coming from Syria--the dead bodies in the streets or the destroyed towns--I thought it might be better to seek the roots of this, to go a little bit to the past, and to dig more you know, in our memories to find those reasons," he says.

Testimony from Syrian refugees living abroad is a key part of the film.

It begins by depicting life under the Assad regime. It's a world painted in khaki, the color of the military uniforms.

Khaled is a Syrian artist now living in France as a refugee. His father was killed by the military during a massacre against anti-government rebels in the 1980s.

"This color killed my father, tortured my father," he says. "It didn't just kill him, it tortured him. It tortured the children of the city. It killed people close to me. It made my mother cry. It made my city cry."

During the Arab Spring, the anger and hate that had built up under Assad erupted.

Then, the civil war broke out. It is now in its seventh year. The film depicts the desperation of those forced to leave their homes and families.

Amathel is one of them. She is a translator now living in Finland. Hunted by the military, she had to leave Syria, without even getting the chance to tell her family.

"Sighing in relief, I was out," she says. "I was in a different country. It was unbelievable. At the same time, I felt like a placenta was cut off. A placenta that surrounds the embryos and chokes them to death."

One scene from the film shows a forest in winter, suggesting the inner landscape of the refugees. It is overlaid with the voices of politicians.

Alfoz implies that international meddling has made the situation in Syria worse.

"Russia, America and the West, you know, all of them have something in Syria, all of them they wanted to share something from this case, everyone wants his piece," he says. "So, from that cinema I wanted to say all of the world is sharing now, you know, it’s a kind of the Third World War, somehow. But the Syrian’s making this war."

The film shows European train stations packed with people fleeing the destruction. Although they have left Syria, the refugees cannot escape the sounds of its battlefields.

Alfoz is also a refugee. His mother stayed in Syria. He has not seen her in six years. His calls and messages back home feel like his only connection to his country. He tells his mother about the award.

A Memory in Khaki has won high acclaim for its extraordinary use of color. Throughout the film, red objects stand out in the world of Khaki. A red balloon. A red pomegranate. The color symbolizes both blood and the people’s resistance.

A fictional young boy also appears in the film, his story integrated with the testimony of refugees.

In one segment, he secretly wears a red T-shirt under his khaki uniform. But he’s hunted by a sniper because of it.

In the final scene, he dashes through a meadow wearing the red shirt. What was Alfoz trying to convey through the image?

"I left in the film one tiny hope," he says. "I didn’t make that child to be dead. I mean, the sniper, he shot, but we didn’t know if he dies or not. I just closed the picture here. I want people to imagine that the boy is still safe. He managed to run away from this sniper. The sniper didn’t kill him. He’s still running with this red T shirt in this green field toward freedom."

Although Alfoz is no longer in his homeland, his films express the sentiments of many Syrians.

He says that even if the current situation seems lost, there is still a glimmer of hope ahead.

"I just want this blood stop, you know, this war to be stopped," he says. "And so that at least we can get back to see our houses and the people re-communicate again. As a filmmaker, I have a lot to do, like to speak about those people, to express them in cinematic way, and share my story and their stories with the whole world."

The film has also been shown at festivals in Europe and elsewhere, receiving accolades in several countries.

Alfoz is now working on a new film. It is about a family that is split up when it flees the Syrian revolution.