1. After studying law, and graduating from the Fine Art Institute in Damascus, you worked in various roles in the TV industry. What made you shift your focus from these pursuits and focus on film-making instead?
Every format has different conditions. In Syria we don’t have something like Film School, so the only way to learn about the medium is to self-educate or to go abroad. In my case it was a learning process, a so called evolution. I always wanted to make films, but the only way to do so, was to go through these steps from Animation to TV and then to Cinema. It was somehow a way to explore and experience different mediums.
2. Both Coma (2015) and Chaos (2018) have characteristics traditionally attributed to the documentary genre. Could you describe how this particular genre helped you find your voice as a filmmaker and what advantages and disadvantages it brought?
Every film is an experience in itself, so it’s difficult to answer this question for both films together. I wouldn’t say that this genre helped me to find my own voice in particular because I never question what I do while working on a film. I leave myself adrift in the process. This is also based on the fact that I didn’t study Cinema. While others might really stick to the rules, I don’t even know the rules or what genre truly means. I give myself to the experience and discover new aspects every time. Therefore, I can’t say if this choice of genre had advantages or disadvantages. I am experimenting a lot with genre itself.
3. In your documentary Coma, you were both behind and in front of the camera. In Chaos the actress Jaschka Lämmert functions as a sort of obfuscated stand-in for you, wandering the streets, museums, and the subway system of Vienna. How were these two experiences for you, and did appearing in front of the camera in Coma influence how you approached “Chaos?”
I always consider the camera as a part or extension of my body: my brain, my eyes, or my hands, as opposed to a mere object or tool. In Coma, you could hear me, or see a glimpse of me, but you never really saw me entirely because I didn’t really see that until making Chaos. In Chaos, there is an extreme close-up of my face, just like I frame the other women. In a way, I was trying to put together what the violence in Syria has divided.
Jaschka was more or less a Doppelgänger of the first or the second character, of the spirit of Bachmann or even of myself; she has an unlimited function in the film. I also didn’t want to limit myself in terms of how to use the camera. Coma and Chaos have nothing to do with each other, yet they have everything to do with each other. Both films have their own approach in terms of camera use and also in terms of the story. Concerning Chaos, I knew that I wanted to hold the camera. Also, the film had three different locations, so it was a natural condition of making it. In Coma, the whole film is happening in one space, so I put the camera in fixed spots to respect the space.
4. The Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, features prominently in Chaos, where you include snippets from a 1971 radio interview with her. Why were Bachmann’s reflections important for this film? What parallels did you draw between Ingeborg Bachmann’s thoughts and your own?
Bachmann is an element of the film, but she is not the center of it. She is a very important element because she functions as a bridge between the characters. I started to read her works in Arabic, then in English, and eventually, when I moved to Vienna, I read them in German. She wrote a lot about her experience of the war and its effects and consequences, especially in regards to the female perspective on war and trauma. She experienced it herself during and after World War 2. She moved between cities, and she died in a fire in Rome. In the interview from 1971 she was speaking about Malina, a novel that she wrote in Vienna after the war in which she brought up the Doppelgänger concept. I was fascinated by how everything was connected to my film. She also connected me to Vienna because I only knew the city through her writings. Therefore, I like to see her as the bridge between the characters, the cities, and also between the tournaments of the war.
5. When people watch your work, you give them the chance to see a different life-experience through a specific lens. What do you hope audience members (particularly those unfamiliar with Syria) will take away from your films?
I have to admit that I think of myself first when I make a film. I want and need to express something without questioning the outcomes. I ask myself: how can I do this? How can I express my feelings? How can I transmit this idea? I would describe it as a kind of selfish approach, but once the project is in the editing room, I start to think more about how people will perceive my work. My only wish is to make people feel what I filmed.
6. In your director’s statement about Chaos you posed the question, “How can people protect themselves from hatred when there is so much loss and pain surrounding them?” In which ways did this question manifest or guide the project? Would you say that after having finished these two films, you are nearing an answer?
Unfortunately, I do not have the answer. There are definitely questions coming up with Chaos, but I don’t have the particular answers for them. You might even end up watching the film and leave with no answers at all. Every film questions you, and there are no specific answers. It is more of a feeling than a conclusion.
7. Coma and Chaos are the first two parts of a trilogy. Could you talk a bit about the third part and how you are approaching the work on the final film?
As I said before, I don’t think too much about the genre for example, but I am writing the script for this film now. I know that the film is a connection between reality and fiction. After Coma and Chaos it will be called Calm.
8. Now that you are the filmmaker-in-residence at Deutsches Haus at NYU, how do you plan on spending your time here in New York? Are there any particular things you plan to do or places you would like to see? How do you perceive this city?
For me it’s really interesting to be in the city that never sleeps. It reminds me of Beirut, where I lived for some time, and which is also kind of a nocturnal city. It feels as if I am in a journey through time and into the future. Where I live in Vienna, on the contrary, it feels more like traveling back to the past. These differences between time, space and diversity are an interesting experience for me and my work. It offers a lot of nice distractions, but I try to make the most of the time I have here without detaching myself from my project. Just as I leave myself to the process of filming, I like to let myself drift as a tourist. I don’t like to have a plan because I think it helps to discover new corners every day. I have one month in New York, so I’ll make sure to enjoy it without too much stress. I plan to meet acquaintances and friends that I’ve made throughout my career.