There are films that simply stay in our heart. They occupy a constant spot within one's consciousness and seem to come up whenever a word triggers a memory of them.
For me, The Translator is one such film and whenever I hear about Syria in the news, I go back to the images that real life couple, and directing duo Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf have created in their understated masterpiece.
Back when I first viewed the film, as part of the line-up at Tallinn Black Nights in 2020, I was impressed by a confessions the filmmakers made in their press kit: “We did not participate in the peaceful demonstrations that took place at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. Although we supported the demonstrators, we did not lend our voice. We were afraid to. Afraid to be arrested, tortured or killed. Although we are Syrian and were living in Damascus at the time, we grew up in France and the US. We had passports that afforded us the privilege of leaving the country whenever we wished. The realization of this for us is ugly. It's real, but humiliating. And although we fully recognize that making a film about the revolution pales in comparison to those who risked their lives to participate, this film nonetheless represents the need to testify. Our main character, Sami, is not unlike ourselves.”
In the film, Sami (played by Ziad Bakri) is a man whose words, or more precisely his translations of someone else's words, have gotten him into trouble with the Syrian regime. As a result, he escaped to Australia where he resettled and created a new life for himself. But the past comes back to haunt him when his brother (a cameo by the extraordinary Saleh Bakri, also Ziad's brother in real life) disappears in Syria, in much the same way as their father did during the 1980 revolts.
What is brilliant about The Translator is how much we, the audience, learn from the film about the goings-on of the Syrian regimes, of both Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, the current ruler of the country. In fact, when I ask the couple via Zoom from Doha about what they wish North American audiences to take away from the film, their answers clearly show this was part of their intention in making the film. Kazkaz says, "we would like them to remember how the conflict in Syria started -- I think that's what we want audiences everywhere to remember is that it started with hope. Russia didn't come till 2015, Daesh didn't come till 2014, this was a moment pre the mass exodus across the Mediterranean, pre the mass exodus on foot to Europe, pre the chemical weapons, pre the hundreds of 1000s of photos that we now have of the torture victims -- it started with hope."
Khalaf adds, "I could add to what Rana said, just the simple fact of researching some information on Syria after watching the film, because as an audience, they have been made aware of something that they ignored completely or didn't know about. Just to be curious and pushed towards a research on the internet would be a huge success. For people to go beyond what they just see on the news. That they instead go far beyond that, to do research for themselves -- this is something we always are aspiring to."
Kazkaz also adds a universal message to the already great substance of a film that provides a bit of learning with its entertainment. "I think the other thing that we hope audiences take away is that although this happens in Syria, these events are happening all over the world right now. And what we hope that people find universal is the idea that regardless of which continent you're living on, you're aware of what peaceful protests looks like, and the ways in which governments all over the world are retaliating against peaceful citizenship. What that means for us going into the future as human beings, my hope is that we're going to learn how to unite more as a population beyond borders and nationalities and stick up for universal human rights."
The Arab Springs of 2011 have been featured in a lot of stories from the Region in film, art and literature. But the filmmakers of The Translator add an extra layer to the mix, by examining the basic human instincts of "fight or flight." As part of the story of the film, Sami reunites with Karma, his sister-in-law and a woman who has chosen to stay behind to fight the good fight. So what takes more courage in life, to pick up and leave one's beloved homeland and create a new life as an outsider in another part of the world? Or to stay, see one's country turn into an unrecognizable place of suffering and destruction and continue to claim it, regardless, as our own? This is a point that is central to The Translator and I asked Khalaf and Kazkaz about it.
"We always hear the immigrant story or the refugee story, right? But the story of the person who chooses to stay is becoming more and more of a profound idea for me. And I think you're right to bring it up and I thank you for bringing that out. Her [Karma's] resolve to stay and not leave, that is shocking. And yet very beautiful," says Kazkaz. She continues, "to just say, you know, this is my home, this is where I'm meant to be, I'm not going to escape, I'm not going to leave, I'm not going to be somebody else. She's not going to take the path that Sami took before. She saw that leaving also destroys you. Staying destroys you and leaving destroys you..."
Khalaf adds, "and yet she says to Sami that his brother, her husband, said that he was the one who took the right decision to leave. She tells him at the end of the film, which is sad, because it goes against everything she believes in which is fighting from within and staying put."
So why has the Syrian narrative quietly, yet surely disappeared from the media in the last few years, I ask the duo? "Fatigue, there are new crisis," Kazkaz responds, "and I think people get lost in the story, they don't know what the story is, and the Syrian government has been very good at creating their own narrative of what's been happening. Plus the international community latched on to the horrors, rightly so of ISIS, of Daesh, but ended up completely neglecting, you know, the horrors of the government itself." Khalaf continues, "and issuing idle warnings like those of Barack Obama, winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace and president of the most powerful country in the world, who stated "there's a red line and chemical weapons cannot be used," and then it happens, they make it happen just to prove him wrong, knowing that he will not do anything -- and go on mocking him for the rest of his presidency." That doesn't make for politically correct media coverage, that's for sure.
But there is hope coming out of the rubble of a great country like Syria, which has produced poets, artists, filmmakers and wonderful human beings like Khalaf and Kazkaz. The hope lies in learning from past mistakes, so as not to repeat them in the future. "What is interesting about this Arab Spring, is that researchers suspect that there will be another movement, in let's say, about another 20 years," says Kazkaz, "so it's interesting to think about what the people of the Region learned from 2011. For one, this false truth that's always said that the world believes in democracy and if the people stand up for democracy, they will be supported. They know now this is a lie. And the fact that smaller countries can just get lost in a larger geopolitical game is also something that they now know."
And while The Translator definitely gives plenty of food for thought, long after viewing it, it must be noted that this is first and foremost a cool, fascinating and entertaining film, with stellar performances and shot with just the right mastery to make us believe that what happens to Sami, could one day happen to us. No matter who or where we are.
In the U.S. and Canada, The Translator is available on iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, Microsoft Movies, Google Play Movies, VUDU-Fandango, Verizon, COX Cable, Comcast, InDemand, Cablevision, Charter/Spectrum and Vubiquity.