Documentary Review:“Queens of Syria”

What happens when refugees from wars like that in Syria reach a “safe haven” like Jordan? Much of our exposure to human displacement as a result of conflict focuses on the phenomenon of transition from one place to another, with only very occasional glimpses into what happens next. In this beautifully produced documentary directed by Yasmin Fedda, she and her team succeed in giving victims of Syria’s ongoing tragedy faces and voices. The film follows the creation of a piece of multimedia theatre by director Omar Abu Sada and a group of sixty Syrian women who have been forced to seek refuge in Jordan. Based on Euripides’ Trojan Women, the play and the creative processes involved in its production bring these women face to face with some of the horrors they have faced, and which still haunt them in exile.

director yasmin fedda
Director Yasmin Fedda at the film’s UK premier. (Credit: film.britishcouncil)

We first meet the women involved – sixty to begin with, though numbers decline throughout – in the midst of a warm-up exercise which will be recognised instantly by anyone who has been involved in theatre. We see them engaging with the game, playful, silly and full of laughter. Indeed, the film makes its audience confront the women’s normality again and again, emphasising their diversity as a group, and introducing us to individuals through one-to-one interviews away from the rehearsal space. The homes we see are small and basic, a place where the actresses cope with the difficulties of motherhood with so few resources, studying their lines while their children do their homework in the evening. Even away from the conflict, their lives remain extremely precarious – one lady is forced to move in with a friend when a storm causes her ceiling to fall in. She says the experience made her feel like she was back in Syria.

nearing the final rehearsal
Nearing the final rehearsal (Credit: tellbrakfilms)

The struggle of daily life as a refugee is just one of the factors that causes so many women to abandon the project before the play is staged. As the director encourages his cast to weave their own stories into the plot of Trojan Women, many fear repercussions for relatives still in Syria. Their fear is real and justified – they have witnessed massacres, loved ones flung into mass graves. They know that nothing is beneath the various participants in the struggle for power, and that their family members could pay an awful price for their involvement in something which could be perceived as anti-regime. Omar Abu Sada is pushed far beyond the normal remit of a director in trying to encourage the actresses to let their stories be heard – he has to convince them that they have a right to a voice. It is upsetting and strangely frustrating to see these strong women, all of whom have shown great strength and courage in getting themselves and their families to Jordan, silenced by the oppressors they have fled.

Despite their concerns, the women who stick with the production to the end – and even those who don’t – develop a great connection with Euripides’ narrative. The parallels they draw between the sack of Troy and what they have witnessed in their own country gives them fantastic empathy with their characters. As well as enabling them to commit to their performances in the face of their lack of theatrical experience, this seems to touch the actresses on a much deeper level. The play becomes a foundation on which they can build a conversation about what they have been through; it is something they can point to and tell the world that it is their story too. Before the opening night, we see them waiting backstage, some nervous for the first time as they realise that husbands and children are on route to see the result of all their hard work. The small parts of the performance included in the film suggest that these efforts have paid off – it must have been a hugely powerful theatrical experience for audiences and performers alike. It is strange, however, to think about this performance from the perspective Fedda’s film has given us. Although Abu Sada includes the women’s stories in his theatrical production, they are flawless, rehearsed renditions, with a very different sort of power than that of the initial tellings in the early workshops. The film leaves its audience with memories of individuals, about whose future we cannot help but wonder. Their stories have the power to illustrate the conflict in ways the media and expert commentators could never dream.

Helena Bennett

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