Today, the 30th of August, is the International Day of the Disappeared, a day set aside each year to honour the victims of enforced disappearance, the open secret that pulls at the very fabric of Arab societies. As we go about our lives, our politics, our projects, in relative freedom or repression, hundreds of thousands of people across the Middle East are forcibly disappeared. Activists, journalists, or those fatally in the wrong place at the wrong time, are detained by regimes that have deemed them better off vanished, imprisoned under terrible conditions, unknown to both their families and the law, in permanent limbo between life and death.
The fact that it is not every conversation in every home, every day, is a cognitive dissonance that is perhaps necessary for us to—in the absence of any real popular political efficacy—go about our lives. But it is one that needs periodical collapsing, if we are not to commit the fatal sin of forgetting. But—as too many of us in the region know too well—it takes more than human rights campaigns. It takes more than hashtags. It takes the creative, continuous telling of stories, everlasting and real, to keep the conversation going in any way that feels productive, in any way that does justice to the people and families ripped apart by this normalised crime.
Machi still hopes he’s alive, because there is no definitive information that Paolo has died. And so she very much tries to speak about him in the present as much as possible.
Ayouni is the new documentary by Palestinian director Yasmin Fedda pulling off this collapse with subtlety, humanity, and bravery. It tells the story of Syria’s forcibly disappeared—100,000 people since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011—through two detainees, and the people that love them most: activist Bassel Khartabil (also known as Bassel Safadi) and his wife Noura Ghazi—known together as the ‘Bride and Groom of the Revolution’ for their iconic love story—and Father Paolo Dall’Oglio and his sister Immacolata (Machi). Following Noura and Machi’s impossible journey for answers, Fedda accomplishes a critically important film, while at all points focusing primarily—even solely—on love.
The documentary took six years to make, and premiered this March at CPH:DOX, a documentary film festival in Denmark. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, and in lieu of a festival circuit and years of limited releases, the film has been released to watch online on Vimeo On Demand, costing only $8 to rent and available worldwide, with translation into 7 languages. In some countries, it’s free access, and Fedda and London-based producers Elhum Shakerifar and Hugh Hartford have ensured that people who for any number of reasons can’t pay for the film, can access it regardless.
“The reason we’ve translated it into so many languages is we wanted to make it accessible in the countries where the issue itself is relevant, whether specifically in Syria but also the broader issue of disappearance,” Fedda tells SceneArabia. “In Germany, for example, there’s cases against ex-Syrian officials who were accused of torture. It’s also in Spanish because the issue of disappearance is resonant in Spain, where 100,000 people were disappeared under Franco’s rule, as well as countries like Chile and Argentina.”
The film Fedda had originally set out to make was a very different story, focused exclusively on Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, the Italian priest she had known when she lived in Syria. Father Paolo—who gained fame for his work on interfaith dialogue from a monastic community near Damascus—became outspoken once the revolution started, which resulted in an expulsion order from the Syrian government. Fedda met him once to film in 2013—footage that features in Ayouni—and a few months later, he went to ISIS-controlled Raqqa to negotiate the release of kidnapped journalists. He has not been heard from since.
The right to know is very important, emotionally, but also politically and socially, for the future of Syria. You can’t rebuild communities and relationships without having answers. Without knowing, there’s no accountability, and there’s no justice.
“That was the point when I started to understand what forcible disappearance really meant. Disappearance was being used as a systematic war crime to target individuals, to silence people, to pressure their families,” says Fedda. “And that led me to Bassel’s story, who I had known briefly in Syria before 2011, and whose wife Noura opened her life and story to me. That really helped me find a way to tell the story of forcible disappearance through love, through Bassel’s wife Noura, and through Father Paolo’s sister Machi.”
Father Paolo, interviewed by Fedda in 2013.
Though Father Paolo and Machi’s story is incredibly powerful, Ayouni’s depiction of Bassel and Noura is haunting. In a love story heart-achingly familiar to everyone who witnessed the Arab uprisings, we see young revolutionaries Noura—a human rights lawyer whose own father was detained 9 times by former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad—and Bassel fall for each other, get engaged, dream of a future Syria.
Their engagement is interrupted by Bassel’s first imprisonment on March 15th 2012, on the first anniversary of the revolution. His whereabouts were unknown for eight months, until he resurfaced in a civilian prison, where he got a relative of another detainee to get in touch with Noura to tell her where he was. Soon after, the couple got married inside the prison on January 7th, 2013. Two years later, in 2015, he was taken from his cell and disappeared.
Father Paolo's sister Machi holding his picture on the Freedom Bus.
Aptly named Ayouni—literally Arabic for ‘my eyes’ but figuratively ‘my love’—the film is simply, visually beautiful, in addition to its political importance, and all the more striking because it achieves both. Somewhere between journalism and human rights campaign, Fedda does with Ayouni what she could not have with either format.
Disappearance was being used as a systematic war crime to target individuals, to silence people, to pressure their families.
“It’s not pure journalism, though all the information is correct and factchecked. But it’s not presented as a journalistic report,” she explains. “And it’s not presented as a campaign film, although I hope the film can be used in those spaces. I think investigation and reporting are very important. But the work of a storyteller-filmmaker is to try and find that emotional line that can connect what that information is.”
And it is that emotional line, that unwavering heart, that functions as both the driving force that propels an incredibly difficult film forward, and the breath that allows you to keep watching. That heart is perhaps seen most intensely in a scene between Noura and Bassel that defies explanation.
Friend [off screen]: “Do you believe that we will achieve our goals? That we’ll have a civil state? That we’ll change things?”
Bassel: “We’ve already come such a long way. There’s only a short time left. Until we get there.”
On screen is only Noura and Bassel, with his arms wrapped around her, his chin on her shoulder. The vignette, the embrace, and Noura’s furtive, radiating smile have all the trappings of young love, though their words speak of change in exceptionally familiar (and doomed) words. It is a scene of hope that exemplifies why the film is such an enjoyable watch. We know what happens to Bassel, but the scene in its beauty is still not marred by that knowledge.
We have been intimidated and told not to speak out. But we will not be silenced. We are crying out to this unjust world that we want our loved ones back.
Bassel and Noura’s love is both crux and respite, similar to how the poetry of Dunya Mikhail is used to separate the film’s chapters. Black screens and short poems punctuate, but also allow the audience to, as Fedda describes it, “step out from the very intense, intimate moments.”
Because of the pacing that allows viewers to exhale, so to speak, Fedda also has the ability to hit on the hardest emotional realities, such as the longing for the worst kind of certainty that plagues the families of the forcibly disappeared. In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, Noura says she no longer dreams of a wedding dress and a party. She only dreams of knowing if Bassel is still alive. Even if he never returns, she wants to know if he is alive.
In an emotional appeal for information on Italian public radio, Machi says that their family would love to hug Paolo, but are also ready to say goodbye, an awful but critical desire. “You’re in this in-between limbo,” Fedda explains. “You don’t know if someone’s alive or dead, so you don’t know if you can mourn them, and you don’t know if you should hope for them to come back.”
“The right to know is very important, emotionally, but also politically and socially, for the future of Syria,” she continues. “You can’t rebuild communities and relationships without having answers. In Lebanon, there are still 17,000 people missing, forcibly disappeared since the civil war. People are still looking for answers. That need doesn’t go away. It’s the same with Argentina, Chile, and Spain. Without knowing, there’s no accountability, and there’s no justice.”
Perhaps most impressive is the intimacy with which the film is put together, with lenses into Noura and Machi’s processes—through trauma, grief, and impossible hope. “Machi still hopes he’s alive, because there is no definitive information that Paolo has died. And so she very much tries to speak about him in the present as much as possible,” says Fedda.
Hundreds of thousands across the Middle East are detained by regimes that have deemed them better off vanished, imprisoned under terrible conditions, unknown to both their families and the law, in permanent limbo between life and death.
“And I don’t want to say it gets easier with time, but what I’ve noticed is incredible resilience in the way that people manage these thoughts and scenarios, and put that energy into working with other people.”
Noura, for instance, does legal awareness work with families of detainees and the forcibly disappeared in Lebanon. She is a part of Families for Freedom, a women-led movement of Syrian families advocating against enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention around the world.
“Our movement will not stop until every last Syrian is freed and found,” reads the movement’s mission. “We will continue to expand our movement to include every family with a detained or missing person, across religions, political beliefs or ethnicities. We have been intimidated and told not to speak out. But we will not be silenced. We are crying out to this unjust world that we want our loved ones back.”