Director: Suzy Sainovski
Writers: John Cunningham
Cast: Taj Aldeeb, Danae Swinburne, Harper Elwyn
Running time: 15 mins
The horrors of the on-going Syrian Civil War have forced millions of civilians to flee their homes since 2012, becoming part of the continuing refugee crisis which the Western world has failed so contemptibly to deal with. For fear of being seen as weak by the far-right, the world’s leading economies have left countless families to perish attempting to cross the Mediterranean for salvation, and perpetually squabbled about where to send those who make it.
Telling the stories of those people left at the mercy of this corrupt and uncaring international system of closed borders could not be more important then. Cinema can play a crucial role in humanising refugees, and turning the tide against the bigots who would sooner see families at the bottom of the sea than safe and sound on the same land-mass.
Clearly, Nour is one film which has this intention front and centre. The titular lead character is forced to abandon everything in order to keep her younger siblings safe, in what is by far the most affecting segment of this short from Director Suzy Sainovski.
What makes this sequence so moving is the all-too-fleeting glimpse it provides into family life before the sudden breakdown of society. Following an initial news report on the early murmurings of discontent elsewhere in the country, Nour’s mother takes her daughter’s mind off things by teaching her how to prepare her late father’s favourite food. The bonding supplies both an opportunity to build links between the main character and the life experiences of the audience, and warm moment which helps emphasise the sadness to come.
Unfortunately, what would have been a strong first half of the film is let down on two technical fronts, which completely rob viewers of any chance to be truly immersed in this idyllic life. First, the sequencing of the story is utterly jarring. John Cunningham’s script works best when it focuses on the simplicity of familial life – but it needlessly complicates things for the sake of cramming as many unnecessary details into the first half as possible. This is further emphasised some truly slap-dash editing, with the piece lurching from a dining room to a bustling market and back again before hard-cutting to ONE YEAR LATER at break-neck speed, and little regard for transitional shots.
The over-ambition of the script to show as much as possible in the shortest amount of time also leads to the second major technical issue: the green-screening. To the film’s detriment, the Director does not seem to have acted to rein in Cunningham’s vision according to what the project can actually afford to deliver – that is, to put a young woman on the street of a market in Homs – and instead caves to its demands. The resulting keyed-in image is frankly comical, with Nour and her friend looming over stalls like giants, while their tinny dialogue sounds as though it was recorded via a string-can phone, compared to the rich ambience supposedly surrounding them.
While green-screen is a very effective money-saving technique for mega-bucks studios, it is deceptively difficult to pull off – particularly if you are a filmmaker who specialises in political messages and kitchen-sink realism, rather than special effects ridden blockbusters. The only sensible advice to offer independent Directors on using green-screen is therefore “don’t.” Make any excuse you can to keep your characters from having to leave the confines of your indoor scenes, or find a substitute environment you can readily film in.
The second half manages to avoid the trappings of the opening because it is set in Australia, where Sainovski and the cast are actually based. Thankfully, the fact the shooting takes place outside of a studio means that sound and vision are naturalistic, which is exactly what such a story needs to lend it the credibility to make an important political point. Less helpfully, the film then proceeds to fall on its face for entirely new reasons.
Nour and her younger siblings succeed in escaping, but lose contact with their mother on the way. Having been in Melbourne for a brief amount of time – neither of her siblings have grown – Nour speaks impeccable English, complete with a distinctly Aussie twang. She seems to have a welcoming group of friends – and even a hinted love interest – and exists in a bubble of security I would suggest most refugees would not recognise, even when they are “safe” in a new nation. There is little social pressure of any kind at play, and Nour clearly would have benefitted from featuring a more gritty portrayal of the social dislocation and bigotry many refugees contend with.
What little conflict remains is overly simplified, meanwhile. One glaring missed opportunity in this regard involves the recipe lovingly passed from mother to daughter earlier in the film. Nour cannot remember how to make the eggplant recipe, and it frustrates her. At this point, the film’s grating habit of telling rather than showing becomes most abrasive, and rather than allow for a longer scene where visually we see this impact on her, symbolising her severance from her old life and a resulting crisis of identity, Nour clumsily blurts it out clunky expository dialogue to a friend.
This lack of patience ultimately detracts from the film’s climax as well. Nour tastes the fabled eggplant dish in question at a local restaurant and recognises it. We are led to wonder who exactly the new chef from Homs could be – and here the film temporarily excels, as Nour’s hopes are instantly dashed. For one horrific moment, we are punched in the gut, and come tantalisingly close to being impacted by the character’s experience. That is short-lived though – seemingly the filmmakers could not end without providing Nour with closure while triumphant music plays – bottling what could have been a Ken Loach-like piece of devastating realism.
Suddenly, it is as if there is no longer a war, or a refugee crisis, and above all none of us need to do anything for either – everything will work out in the end. Critically, I would argue, it is resisting this urge that makes Loach such a compelling filmmaker. If you are looking to energise your audience to take action on something, sending everyone away smiling arguably defeats the point. It may sound heartless, but the fact the filmmakers did not have the restraint to avert such an exultant ending is the most disappointing element of Nour.
Sloppy editing and basic scripting aside, there are ideas at play here which could be used to make an important contribution to the debate surrounding refugee crisis. Sadly, Nour reeks of desperation when it comes to tying everything up in a neat bow, and subsequently suffers from a split personality which will leave audiences feeling as though they have watched two different films. Ironically, the theme of identity crisis is one which the Director and Writer would have done well to better explore, in order to deliver a film with the punch necessary for this subject.
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