Nezouh: a dreamy picture of life under siege

This gentle film by Soudade Kaadan suggests that accounts of life during wartime in Syria can be about matters other than death – namely hope, love, teenage reverie, and the comedy of family life.

Hala Zein as Zeina in Nezouh (2022)

“What?” a character exclaims in a self-referential moment in Nezouh. “A film in Syria where no-one dies?” Death and jeopardy may be ever-present on the horizon, and outside the walls of heroine Zeina’s battle-ravaged Damascus apartment. But the bet taken by Soudade Kaadan’s film is that an account of life under siege in Syria can be about matters other than death – hope, love, teenage reverie, the comedy of everyday family life.

Nezouh sets out to be a gentler, dreamier, more upbeat film about the experience of life during conflict and the prospect of displacement: ‘nezouh’, an opening title explains, means ‘displacement of soul, water and people’, but the word and the prospect are anathema to Zeina’s father Motaz, who won’t countenance his family leaving town. Kaadan’s second feature, following 2018’s The Day I Lost My Shadow, Nezouh offers a very different image of the Syrian conflict from, say, Philippe Van Leeuw’s claustrophobic siege drama Insyriated (2017) or the urgent reportage shot by Waad al-Kateab in 2019 documentary For Sama, depicting brutal everyday conditions in Aleppo. Told from the perspective of a teenage girl with ordinary teenage dreams, and touched with elements of fantasy and magical realism, Nezouh is essentially a Young Adult version of life under fire, and a certain preciousness is baked into the package.

A foremost element is routine family conflict, depicted either comically or as emotionally tense melodrama. Both Zeina and her mother Hala want to leave town, as most of their neighbours have. Zeina’s older sisters are already gone, one of them in Europe while the other is uncontactable, and possibly in danger, somewhere beyond the city – which it may be possible to leave through a rumoured tunnel. Motaz, however, insists that the family stay put: even when their home has holes blown in its walls and roof, he attempts to maintain a safe nest through desultory measures like hanging up sheets, his attitude summed up by his insistence, “I’m a mechanic – I’ll fix it!” A bullish hulk of an actor, Samir al-Masri gives a lively, affecting performance, playing Motaz to sometimes downright clownish effect as an ambivalent figure. On one hand, Motaz is a determined, responsible man determined to support his family, heading on dangerous sorties into the city to bring back supplies; on the other, he’s a blustering, heavy-handed patriarch, and a fool who insists on keeping up appearances while the world literally crumbles: when a family of neighbours wave to them across the ruins, Motaz’s first thought is to shout to Hala to cover her hair.

Hala and Zeina, meanwhile, are allies, individually sharing the same dreams of escape – an aspect brought home when both find a moment of freedom dancing to the same pop song but in separate rooms. They later become allies in a courageous journey into the outside world, as finally – after a long section restricted to the flat and its rooftop – the action opens up, with mother and daughter fleeing through a ghostly devastated city (one of the film’s Turkish locations).

Nezouh is also the story of emergent teenage love, in the burgeoning tenderness between Zeina and neighbour boy Amer, a budding war correspondent who proves a tech-savvy helper to the family. The coming-of-age element comes to the fore in an overtly erotic moment: close-up of the teenagers’ lips as they eat juicy red berries.

Undeniably a beautifully crafted film, this UK/Syrian/France/Qatari co-production is an example of eminently commercial, somewhat soft-edged international art cinema. Kaadan’s co-editor is Nelly Quettier (a collaborator with Leos Carax, Claire Denis and Ursula Meier), while one of two credited DoPs is Hélène Louvart, who has recently worked with directors including Eliza Hittmann, Léonor Serraille, Karim Ainouz and Alice Rohrwacher. The visual austerity you might expect of the setting is offset by intense luminescence, with sheaves of blazing daylight and plentiful lens flare, while wide angles open up the enclosure of the flat. Kaadan also favours sometimes jarring dream images: Zeina skimming stones in the sky as if on water: a moment when she falls through her roof in a slow-motion rapture, drifting through an imaginary night sky studded with constellations. The gently lyrical score by Rob Lane and Rob Manning, using jangling North African string instruments, is a little over-insistent on signalling moments of sublimity. An alert, exuberant, sometimes mischievous performance from young lead Hala Zein anchors the film nicely when it threatens to veer off into the over-rhetorical ether.

Nezouh is part of the Official Competition at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 11 and 13 October.