The Berlin Human Rights Film Festival kicked off in style with the uplifting story of Hala and her childen Helen, Hammoudi, Farah and Sara, in 'Watani: My Homeland'.
“When the bomb hit, I died. But then I kept on living”, says Farah, as she stares dead at the camera. There are many interviews like this in the beginning of 'Watani: My Homeland' with siblings Hammoudi, Helen, Farah and Sara, who all calmly and candidly talk about the death and destruction they witness on a daily basis in Aleppo, Syria. “Life is cheap in Syria; 1 euro”, says Hammoudi, their older brother. Hammoudi is only 13 years old, but already he seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. Hammoudi will soon become the only male protector of the family when Abu Ali, their father and Free Syrian Army commander, is kidnapped by ISIS. In the early stages of the film there are many clips of Abu Ali, a kind and loving man who is endlessly patient with his lively daughters. He feels guilty about putting his family in such danger, but his heart is in Syria.
“Every morning, we would drink coffee together... Now, I drink for both of us.”
His wife, Hala, tells the story of how they met on a train - "He dropped a packet of cigarettes, and then the next day we bumped into each other again. By the following week, he had gone to my parents and asked for my hand.” In most of her interview footage Hala is seen smoking cigarettes and drinking black coffee. Over the full three years of filming, Hala continues to talk about Hala constantly. “Every morning, we would drink coffee together. If he forgot, I would phone him and he would come home to drink it with me... Now, I drink for both of us.”
When Abu Ali is taken, Hala makes the gut wrenching decision to leave Syria and seek a better life for her children. The goodbye scene is harrowing to watch, particularly when Hala says goodbye to her mother-in-law. The frail old woman is crying and Hala is comforting her, promising that they will see eachother again. When they bid their final farewell, the old woman is left crying on the steps, sobbing, “What shall I do now that they are gone?”
Although leaving Syria was a very difficult decision for Hala, it was impossible for them to stay. Aleppo was a war-zone; homes were in ruins and the children had no hope of a better future. Naturally, Hammoudi, Sara, Farah and Helen became normalized to the violence and destruction they were surrounded by - particularly the youngest, Farah and Sara. In this strange anarchic environment, the children are left to roam the deserted streets and abandoned buildings of Allepo, playing amongst the rubble, climbing up broken stairways, exploring bombed out houses, scavenging for toys and other trinkets.
Sara holding a gun - Image via 'Watani' official website
In one scene, the children walk into a bombed out apartment to search for objects, and Sara breezily remarks, “Look, the bird has died in its cage”. In another room, she finds an old machine gun. She drags it around with her like a prize she’s won at a funfair. It is so big that it trails along the floor. This comfortability with firearms and violence even extends to playing pretend ISIS games. We see footage of the children taking it in turns to pretend to wear the Niqab and yell “get down on the floor!”. Then, they act out decapitating each other. These morbid scenes make for uncomfortable watching.
After the family have fled to Turkey, they stay with a family friend in Istanbul while they wait for news about their visa applications. The children seem to enjoy the relative normalcy of life in Istanbul, but the trauma of war has left its subtle marks. For example, whenever they hear a plane overhead they immediately scream and run for cover.
Hala remains a source of comfort and stability for her children, but despite her calm demeanor she is clearly very unhappy and scared for the future. Hala knows she must be strong, but her heart aches to be away from Syria and from Abu Ali. She still doesn’t know what has happened to him. Sometimes, she hears that he is dead; sometimes, that he is alive.
In a particularly distressing scene, Hala shows us a picture of an emaciated corpse that bears a strong resemblance to her husband. The body is skeletal and has clearly been starved to death. The face looks unmistakably like Abu Ali. Hala compares the picture with one of Abu Ali on her phone, comforting herself that their noses are slightly different. We never find out who this man is.
In the end, this constant fluctuation of hope and despair leaves Hala numb. All she can do is sit, flicking through photos of her lost life, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, and waiting for news that never comes. She holds her phone in her hand the whole time - “This phone is my life. This has every memory from our past. This is why I keep it with me all the time.”
Amidst all the sadness and uncertainty are also moments of joy. In one scene, just after they arrive in Turkey, we see the children playing in the sea. It is night-time and the waves are stormy. The children are running and screeching with excitement as they run along the beach, rushing in and out of the sea. Another fun moment is when they reach their new home, the beautiful medieval village of Goslar, and they run from room to room - “Upstairs there are a million rooms!”, exclaims Sara. They find an old mattress and surf it down the stairs.
There are many parts of 'Watani' that the average viewer could never fully understand unless they themselves are a refugee, however, there are a few moments that we can definitely all relate to! One such moment is on Helen and Hammoudi's first day of school. As they walk along the path towards their new school, Helen stops and doesn't want to go any further. She is scared. She worries that the kids might tease her about her headscarf; that they will be judged her and her family for being different. Thankfully, Hammoudi is there to coax her along. When they arrive, they are greeted by a friendly teacher who shows them into their new class. Timidly, we see Helen sit down amidst the curious faces of the children of Goslar, many of whom have never met a Syrian person before.
The last section of the film focuses on the children's integration into their new life - learning German, doing homework, and slowly adopting more of the German culture. There is a wonderful scene showing Hammoudi walking around the school playground with some boys from his class. They want to hear all about his old life in Syria. Hammoudi tells them proudly about his homeland - about the food, the games he used to play, about his family and his 'annoying' sisters who "always hit me and want to use my phone!".
The most changed of all the children is Helen. Helen was the most reserved out of her more carefree younger sisters, and the only one old enough to be wearing a headscarf. However, after acclimatizing to her new life in Germany, Helen stops wearing her headscarf. In one scene, we see her ice skating, stumbling over the ice, laughing with her friends and staring at boys - "ohh, he is so cute!", they giggle and whisper to each other.
Although the children all settle in fast, it is much harder for Hala. She stays strong for her children, and tries her best to be happy. But, she will always long for Syria.
(From left) Farah, Hala, Helen, Hammoudi and Sara - Image via Deadline
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