Many of the filmmakers who have been drawn to the Syrian Civil War and its resultant refugee crisis are outsiders to it—they are Europeans and Americans of a reportorial tradition, drawn by a sense of duty to relate the tragic stories of its victims to a world that increasingly dehumanizes them. Laura Wadha was motivated by a similar sentiment—a young film student in the U.K., she was making a short doc about her Scottish grandfather when he implored her to use her filmmaking “to help people”. While Her mind went to Syria, for Wadha, a woman of mixed descent, the plight of its citizens was personal—her young cousins were still trapped inside.
Prodded by the words of her grandfather, Wadha embarked upon a 4 year process that lead to this film, Flight. In it she tells the story of her cousins from a uniquely intimate vantage. Realizing that it would difficult, not to mention dangerous, to do conventional reporting in a war zone, she used this lack of physical access to her advantage—constructing an eerie portrait out of mix of sources: skype calls, cell phone clips, and old camcorder footage of her childhood visit to the country. The result is surreal—amateur footage assembled like an art film, impressionistic snatches and bites of interviews quilted upon ghostly images. These footage sources trigger our brains to experience both nostalgia and a more direct and personal connection to the subjects than polished professional footage could, and the degraded clips mirror the destruction of the country. Even something as benign as the camcorder timecode on certain shots instills an uneasy sense of foreboding, as the numbers—time itself—race towards tragedy like some sort of doomsday timer.
Through it all a recognizable and linear narrative remains—we follow the girls from their time in Syria, going to school as murders occur all around them, to their dangerous emigration, making the well documented journey by boat into Greece, and from there finding sanctuary in Sweden, only to encounter prejudice in their new home.
It is a sad journey, but it is picked up by the childish buoyancy of Wadha’s young cousins, who prove that no circumstance can keep the natural exuberance of young girls down for long. What so many of the docs we’ve seen about this subject miss is not the perspective of Syrians per se—many films give ample space for refugees to relate their stories orally—but they lack unguarded access to their subjects as they are, in those times of silliness or sadness, pain or joy that are so indicative of life itself. Wadha gains this access through her relation to her subjects, and protects it respectfully via her no frills production approach that was sensitively attuned to her family. This produces a much more well-rounded and painfully humanizing portrait.
Despite the “happy” ending that finds her cousins safe in Sweden, the toll of their experience is clear. Wadha feels they experience post traumatic stress disorder, and their memories of Syria are almost completely gone. She shows them footage from her camcorder of Syria, and it is heartbreaking when they exclaim “I remember!” in regards to various locations. Even more haunting is the closing interview to the film where the girls disown their Syrian heritage, proclaiming that they “don’t want to be Syrian anymore”. The advocacy behind Flight, and all these films of its type, is clear—we, the world community, can and should do more for these people. Yet no manner of humanitarian aid or amnesty can the turn back the clock on the slow-motion erasure of a national identity.