EL-GOUNA, Egypt: “The Day I Lost My Shadow,” the debut feature of Syrian writer-director Soudade Kaadan, is among the recent crop of films inspired by what might be termed the post-Arab Spring moment – the yearslong aftermath of the exultant popular uprisings demanding political change that ignited imaginations in 2011.
Set in Damascus and Ghouta (the city’s eastern and southern suburbs) and taking place over a few days in 2012, the film is not “about” opposition protests or the state’s response to them. Its narrative is more mundane. It recounts an episode in the life of Sana (Sawsan Arsheed), a widowed mother struggling to cope with the abrupt escalation of violence in her neighborhood, water and electricity cuts, and her search for a gas canister for her stove.
The story opens with her and her young son Khalil running up the stairs to their flat, where they’re confronted by a soldier demanding to see her papers. At home, she finds the water’s back on – so they strip down to do a load of laundry.
The power cuts a few minutes later, provoking a fit of frustrated cursing from the high-strung mom.
The next day, Sana’s back at work at a pharmacy, cleaning up the mess left by a state security inspection.
They were looking for Jad, her boss, and in conversation with her loudly pro-regime colleague she declares Jad is “with us” regime loyalists. Her acquaintance Reem (Reham Al Kassar) comes in looking for a package of hair dye.
“How many times have you dyed your hair this month?” Sana asks.
“Once for each time a shell dropped in my neighborhood,” she replies. Back home that evening, Sana is in the midst of dinner preparations when the gas bottle runs out.
The next morning, she joins a long queue for overpriced gas, where she finds Reem and friend Jalal (Samer Ismail).
A military truck arrives and, after a word with the salesman, soldiers begin loading the canisters into the truck. The merchant tells his customers to go home and Jalal gives him some lip. He’s on the verge of being arrested when Reem steps in.
After some discussion, Sana, Reem and Jalal decide to take an overpriced cab to the eastern part of town where he knows a guy who has gas. En route they encounter a regime checkpoint. The cab driver (who’s delivering a camera loaded with footage of anti-regime demonstrations) panics and flees.
He eventually loses his pursuers among the fruit groves of Ghouta and drops his passengers and their gas to find their way back to Damascus on foot.
The balance of “Shadow” unfolds amid the orchards and countryside of Ghouta as Sana, Reem and Jalal search for a ride back to town. Told from the perspective of Sana – whose perception begins to fray around the edges as she frets about being way from her son – the journey comprises a series of vignettes that range from the absurd to the surreal.
“Shadow” is among the eight feature-length fictions and documentaries having their Arab-world premieres at El-Gouna Film Festival, the region’s first major film festival in the calendar year. Kaadan’s film is among those that have already garnered awards overseas.
“The Day I Lost My Shadow” premiered at the Venice Film Festival a few weeks back, competing in the Orizzonti (New Horizons) section for debut and sophomore features. There it was named Lion of the Future, winning the Luigi De Laurentiis Venice Award for a Debut Film.
Since Kaadan and her crew had not got visas in time to attend the film’s Arab premiere, it was introduced by Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania, who was on the jury that awarded the De Laurentiis award. “Today,” Ben Hania said, quoting Kaadan’s remarks, “our absence is a statement.”
Though its narrative and sentiments are very close to her country’s ongoing human tragedy, “Shadow” is not a piece of partisan propaganda. The film communicates a clear political agenda less than it does a sort of muddy lyricism.
That aesthetic expresses itself on several levels. Narrative non sequitur, for instance.
Sana and Reem awake one morning to find Jalal has left. Panicking, Reem immediately begins adding wood to the small fire Jalal’s allowed them, for fear of being discovered by a patrol of regime gunmen.
“This way Jalal will be able to find us,” Reem says.
Later Sana finds a man’s body in the bush and tries to move it.
She’s stopped by a regime gunman who threatens to shoot her too if she doesn’t drop the corpse.
“This winter is strangely cold,” she remarks.
“Yes,” he replies, face softening from confused to amiable. “They say it snowed in Zabadani.”
“Tadmour too,” she rejoins.
While Arsheed depicts Sana’s anxiety with an expression of shell-shocked desperation – accentuated by the camera work of DP Eric Devin, which seems to prefer close-up shots of the characters’ faces and handheld-style framing to express panic – a stronger reflection of Sana’s growing instability is her perception of small details.
The most obvious visual gesture lies in the conceit that names the film. As Sana stumbles through Ghouta, she starts to notice that some individuals around her no longer cast a shadow.
At other moments, Devin’s lens is more self-consciously lyrical – weather tracking across the dust-smeared windshield of a truck Sana’s in, or contemplating a muddy puddle into which kids are dropping rusty tin cans.
One of the strongest features of “Shadow” is also among the least present. Composed by Kinan Azmeh, the score – performed in snatches by flute, voice and something that might be harpsichord – surfaces rarely, but effectively.
El-Gouna Film Festival continues through Sept. 28.