The Syrian uprising started as part of the region’s so called Arab Spring, at a time when it seemed likely the old autocratic order would be swept away by the peaceful democratic movements that were emerging across the Middle East. Sadly, this has not proved to be the case for many countries in the region with none suffering more than Syria.
While the world’s attention has now shifted to the growing tensions between America and Russia over that country’s annexation of the Crimea, Syria has largely fallen off our news radar. And yet three years on from the onset of this bitter conflict there is no end in sight. Instead the country appears to be locked in a war of attrition, with atrocities being committed by both sides.

The Italian director/screenwriter, Alessio Cremonini has made Syria the central focus for his directorial debut with Border, a thoughtful but deeply pessimistic film which highlights the true cost of war.

Set in the present day, Border looks at the plight of two deeply religious sisters, sisters who unusually for Syria – where the practice is uncommon – both wear the half face veil. At the film’s onset the sisters are informed that the husband of one, who is fighting in the Syrian Army, has decided defect to the Rebels because he can no longer carry out the orders of the Assad government.

Fearing his decision will have dangerous ramifications for both his wife and her sister, he sends a friend to help them flee the country. The film charts their torturous journey to the Turkish border and in doing so shows us a troubling picture of a country in turmoil.

At the screening of Border, part of London’s Made in Italy season, Alessio Cremonini spoke of the inspiration behind this beautifully crafted but deeply disturbing feature. He explained: “In Italy we feel other parts of the Mediterranean are really not that far away. So when we see what is going on in Syria we feel a deep connection. I wanted to find out more about what was actually happening there. The story of these two sisters is based largely on a conversation that took place between a doctor and a Syrian refugee. The doctor spent several days talking to her about her incredible journey and listened to her account of the terrible things she had experienced.

But what struck him most though was that at no point did she ever remove her veil. She was describing some of the most personally traumatic experiences of her life, yet throughout their conversations her face remained covered.”

In Border the two sisters head for Turkey in a car driven by a male friend hired by the absent husband serving as a Rebel soldier. The driver is initially dubious, since the fact both women are veiled makes the group conspicuous. He is however, persuaded by the doubling of his agreed fee. En route the driver picks up a young man, a friend of his family who, we later discover, has taken part in the committing of various human rights atrocities. Now hunted by both the Army he has defected from and the opposition, whose members he helped slaughter, the young man is running for his life. These details come to light when the kindly driver dies of a suspected heart attack and the women are left to decide whether to risk travelling together alone in a country where rape is now commonplace or to trust a stranger they know little about.

All the actors in Border give fine performances, which give the film an almost journalistic quality. You feel you are not watching a drama but rather a news story on the ongoing conflict. The director observes: “I wanted the film not to feel in any way like a fictional story but rather one which is as real as possible. Even the actors we used are not professional actors. Firstly, given the chaotic situation in Syria now, it would have been virtually impossible to find professional actors but also I felt it was important to use people whose own lives have been touched by the conflict.

“Wasim Abo Azan, who plays the stranger is in fact a refugee seeking asylum in Europe. He comes from a prominent Syrian family who once enjoyed a very high standard of living but that is all gone now. Then Sara El Debuch, who plays the soldier’s wife, has an uncle who was recently killed in the conflict. Everyone you see on the screen has somehow been affected by this terrible war.”

One night when the sisters run into an army patrol they are separated, the younger one escapes with the young man, while the older one is taken by the security forces. Her sibling, unaware of what has happened, spends hours searching for her but finds only a small child whose mother has been killed in the conflict.

During an argument with the stranger over whether to bring the child with them, she accidentally trips, falls and subsequently dies, leaving the stranger to bury her body. Regretting the woman’s death and seeking salvation, the young man decides to take the child with him. It is as if this final tragedy has finally opened his heart. Stumbling across a group of rebel soldiers, who do not know his true identity, the man manages to persuade them to take him and the child the rest of the way to the to the Turkish border. They proceed to the border but stop on the way to conduct a prisoner exchange. One of the prisoners they rescue is the dead woman’s older sister who, after being told of her sister’s fate, promptly informs the rebel unit who the young man accompanying her really is. The Rebels try to execute him but he escapes and the woman makes her own way towards the border with the child. However, just as she is preparing to cross the border to safety, the little girl runs away and the film ends with the woman turning back to search for her.

“For me the conclusion represents the lost Syria, a place where all faiths lived happily side by side for generations. When I was recently in Aleppo, I was so shocked to see the destruction there. Virtually every road is now gone and many of the houses are destroyed or partially destroyed. Because of the damage it is possible to walk from one front room to the next and many, strangely, have not been completely looted. What I saw there was a house with obvious Islamic religious artefacts standing next to one with several Christian crucifixes next to one with no religious symbols. Obviously these neighbours once lived together in peace, but that peace is now gone in Syria and whether it will ever return – like the missing child in the film – is anyone’s guess.”


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