Filmmaker Soudade Kaadan has chronicled Syria in many of her documentaries, including Two Cities and a Prison (2008), Damascus Roof and Tales of Paradise (2010) and Obscure (2017), and the short film Besieged Bread (2016). In The Day I Lost My Shadow, the Syrian filmmaker once again explores her war-ravaged country, this time through the prism of fiction.
Set in 2012, the film looks at the onset of Syria’s civil war through a young mother Sana (Sawsan Ercheid), who has a surreal experience when she sets out to find food supplies for her son (Ahmad Morhaf Al Ali). The Day I Lost My Shadow was premiered at Venice in September and was screened at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 25-November 1).
The film reflects Kaadan’s distress over the violence in her home country, she told Scroll.in. “The film talks about how everyone loses their shadow in the war,” Kaadan said on the sidelines of the Mumbai Film Festival. “It is about the conditions of people in the war who are put through situations that are beyond humanity.”
The conflict, which has left more than 350,000 people dead, began with violent uprisings and pro-democracy protests against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 and escalated into a crippling civil war that saw the terrorist organisation Islamic State grab power in parts of the country.
The film blends illusion and reality while tracing the mother’s three-day adventure in a besieged area where she finds that people have lost their shadows – a metaphor for the impact of the war on Syria. “I was losing friends and saw graphic images in the news [of the war],” Kaadaan said. “So the only way I could express what I felt was through magic realism.”
While looking at archival footage of war-torn cities as part of her research, Kaadan came upon a photo of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. “They are horrific photos in black and white,” she said. “Everything on the site is destroyed and you only see the shadow of the burned structures on the ground. This image made me think that what is happening in Damascus is ever harder. Because we are alive, but we lost our shadows.”
This film could not have been made as a documentary, Kaadan said. “I used to make documentary films before the war. But when the war started, I felt involved and I felt part of it. I could not film it as a documentary because I felt that I was also a subject.”
The French-born filmmaker moved to Syria at the age of eight and then migrated to Lebanon in 2012 when the civil war broke out. She began writing her feature debut in 2011, while she was still in Syria, but finishing the screenplay after she left the country proved challenging. “Cinema in exile and cinema in war is difficult to make,” the director said.
Casting was one such challenge. Kaadan preferred non-actors from Syria over professionals from other countries. The film’s actors were found in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, Berlin and France. “Nobody can reflect the war as accurately as the people who have lived the war,” she said. “To express what you feel together in one film is sometimes is just rewarding. When you are in exile all of the actors too are in exile around the world. So when I wanted to make the casting, I could not cast from my city. So I had to pick out my casting from all around the world, where Syrians are based.”
The film was shot on the border between Syria and Lebanon, which also proved difficult because of the strained relationship between the two countries. Shooting a film about war also brought along censorship concerns, the filmmaker added. “There is still censorship in our cinema and even in politics and religion,” Kaadan said. “We are trying to break this. But what we have learnt from years of censorship is to play with it and tell what we want.”
The director, who was also one of the jurors for the Mumbai Film Festival’s India Gold competition section, was impressed by the lineup of Indian films at the event. “I am surprised by the quality of cinema by the young filmmakers in India,” she said. “If all cinema is the same, that is a problem. All films are different. I was not only happy, but excited to see different forms of cinema.”