The filmmaker, screenwriter and documentarian opens up about his latest feature
Filmmaker and screenwriter Pascal Sanchez sat down with The Concordian to discuss his newest feature film, Far from Bashar, ahead of its Sept. 25 premiere at the Cinémathèque Québécoise.
Sanchez’s career began on the TV series La Course destination monde, a television competition focused on young burgeoning filmmakers. Sanchez won the competition and went on to make a number of short films and series. His first feature, The Ailing Queen, won an award at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) and received the Gémeaux for best documentary in the nature/science category.
Far from Bashar documents the lives of the al-Mahamids, a Syrian family forced to flee the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and relocate to Montreal. Though they are far from the war, they remain haunted by both the conflict and the life they left behind. Sanchez’s film is a beautiful and delicately observed chronicle of a family’s new beginnings and the past that continues to plague them.
The Concordian: In the film’s press kit, you state that Far from Bashar was initially imagined as “The daydream of a Syrian child … plunged into new surroundings.” What drew you to this concept for the film?
Pascal Sanchez: Basically, it was an intuition. It was a curiosity and a desire. I wanted to get closer, to film the gaze of a child discovering the city for the first time. I wished to document a child that must create a new life, but at the same time, live with their past and the war, which is something very difficult to live with. So for me, it was an important context. I thought that there was something there, something that I wanted to discover. During the research of this film, I asked within the Syrian community to meet some families and to have contact with a child, and then I met the al-Mahamid family. When I met the family and Adnan [the father of the al-Mahamid family], I changed my mind immediately and the project then became a film about the whole family. But I think it’s still the same film, because I wanted to be as close as possible to the inner life, the thoughts of these newcomers in Montreal. And the film is still that. So, the contact with the family was a normal part of the process.
TC: Many films about the conflict in Syria focus on the background and history of the war. Your film takes an opposite approach by instead giving attention to those impacted by its violence. At one instance in the film, Adnan even tells the camera, “people always ask about the historical city, but they forget about the people.” Was this something you had in mind when you set out to make the film?
PS: I didn’t want to make a report or statement about the war. My focus was to be as close as possible to the individuals and their inner life. To document the way they live and their experience of being away from their home and having to build a new life. Also, dealing with some sense of guilt about being survivors and their anxiety for the people left behind. So for me, it was a very difficult and complex situation. I never wished to make a statement about that, I really wanted to let their reality, let them, speak for themselves. It didn’t feel legitimate to make some sort of statement about the war, to say it is one way or another, even though I have my opinions. But at the same time, one thing that was really compelling to me was that Adnan was an activist for democracy in his country and he had to face a lot of repression, a lot of loss. And in my opinion, this part of the conflict was really largely hidden. We didn’t know, and we still don’t know, a lot about that aspect, so it was important for me to follow Adnan and the family.
TC: The film documents the al-Mahamids through several different seasons. We see the youngest daughter celebrating Halloween and later we see their neighbourhood enveloped in snow. How long did the filming process last? Did the presence of cameras and crew pose any problems for the family?
PS: Yeah, it was a long process! Almost one year of filming. I had to adapt to their schedule and to their needs and realities. But they were very open to my presence. They opened their door to me and let me film. I would ask “Can I come and film this? Can I follow you to the university?”, and they would tell me either yes or no. It was a long process, but it was also a kind of cohabitation and we learned to know each other.
TC: You say that Adnan agreed to be filmed because he wished to show that “We [Syrian refugees] are good people.” However, the film does not outwardly tackle issues of prejudice or discrimination. Was it a deliberate decision to avoid such discourse in the film?
PS: I didn’t want to make a statement about that, but it’s a really strong background to this film, sure. And I think the common ground that we have with Adnan and the family is also that, to change the perception of Muslim families. I didn’t want to address it directly in this film, but if the audience notices that, I will be very happy. The family will be too. And the way we film by going softly, and by going also in a truthful approach, it makes a real sense of the encounter with them. So, the answer is yes. It’s a really strong background to film.
TC: Despite the gravity of the film’s subject matter, I could not help but feel a sense of hope emanating from the film. We see the family thriving in their new environment and their firm conviction that they will one day be reunited with their lost loved ones is nothing short of inspiring. Would you consider Far from Bashar to be an optimistic film in that sense?
PS: Yeah I think so. It’s a difficult question because in the film, the family shares their very private moments. It was a very particular and difficult period of their lives. But we also see their courage and the way they deal with those issues. So yeah, I think it’s optimistic. I think it gives a sense of what is good in humanity, in what is good in people.
Far from Bashar is now playing at the Cinémathèque Québécoise. For showtimes and tickets, visit www.cinematheque.qc.ca.