By Jakub Mejer
When, after watching one of the many versions of Dracula, you read the original Bram Stoker’s novel you might be surprised. It’s told in letters! The epistolary narrative structure of the book is hardly preserved in any of the movies. Is this form unusable in film industry? Literature used it many times producing several masterpieces (let’s just name Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werter’), while it’s hard to name a single popular film using this technique.
‘Life May Be,’ a film co-directed by British film critic Mark Cousins and Iranian filmmaker in exile Mania Akbar, is one of the attempts to use the epistolary form in that we’ve seen at Dokufest. What started as an essay that Cousins wrote for the re-release of one of the Akbar’s movies, ended as an exchange of several letters that are read on screen by the two of them and accompanied by visual explanations of the topics they are discussing. Footage we can see is often abstract or even hard to watch. A long shot of the Scottish wilderness where nothing happens (homage to Abbas Kiarostami), a slideshow of private photos, Cousins slowly getting naked on a hotel sofa or Akbar having a bath. At the same time they read their letters – voices are playing the most important part in this movie. They are discussing Akbar’s exile and her work, but slowly film is focusing on nakedness and the significance of body both in capitalist and Muslim culture. Mark Cousins seems to like the idea of using letters in his movies. His second film shown at Dokufest ‘May Be Dragons’ have a small segment where he is also reading an open letter to deceased Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha.
Epistolary form is also used in another film shown at Dokufest – ‘Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait’. Unlike ‘Life May Be’, this time it’s used only in a second half of it. Syrian director Ossama Mohammed is living in exile in Paris. He’s source of information from the homeland is Wiam Simav Bedirxan, teacher living in Homs and shooting a footage that is used to depict the horrors of everyday life in Syria. Their correspondence allows her to have faith and him to be in touch with events happening at home. She’s showing how she’s struggling to make a living, looking for housing, food, helping abandoned children. Her footage is very violent and disturbing, often showing dead or injured.
Both films have several similarities besides its form. ‘Life May Be’ and ‘Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait’ are co-directed by a male and female director. In each case we have one person living in exile and a second one in his or her country. Themes discussed in exchanged letters are concerning Middle East. There are of course also serious differences. In Mohammed’s and Bedrixan’s work the male character is in exile, while in Cousins’ and Akbar’s it’s the female. In Syrian movie it’s the exiled person that is trying to comfort one that stayed in homeland, while in its counterpart it’s the opposite. Mania Akbar feels insecure in London, while Ossama Mohammed is relieved and safe in Paris. Mark Cousin has a normal, happy life in Britain, Wiam Simav Bedirxan is fighting for survival. Syrian filmmakers met for a first time on a film’s world premiere and Cousins and Akbar are friends, they are even shown on a film together.
Mania Akbar stated after ‘Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait’ screening that she liked the way the narrative between Bedrixan and Mohammed is driven. That’s nothing surprising, she used the same one for her work. Besides shared epistolary technique, both films are very different in its form. ‘Life May Be’ might be called an artistic experiment, discussion between two friends about art and society, full of homages to great artists. ‘Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait’ is showing us a naturalistic, gritty, low-quality image of the destroyed country, full of gore and disturbing footage. While in a first one we don’t really know how are this letters exchanged (besides the first one that was written as an essay for a DVD re-release), in a second one we know they are chatting on the internet – soundtrack is full of ambient sounds of the computer messaging applications.
Dokufest is offering us two films that are experimenting with a form that is popular in literature and almost non-existing in cinema. And we should treat them as experiments. Both are exhausting to watch, but due to different reasons. ‘Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait’ is full of extremely violent and disturbing images. ‘Life May Be’ is focused on audio, full of slow takes lacking any action or plot. But if you’re interested in experiments in cinematic form, that’s the closest thing to ‘The Sorrows of Young Werter’ you can get here.