Palestinian director Yasmin Fedda’s latest documentary, “Ayouni”, illustrates Syria’s disappearance through Noura’s intimate mission, the widow of cyber activist Bassel Khartabil and “Machi”, sister of Italian priest Paolo Dall’Oglio, kidnapped in Raqqa 2013 and still missing.
“I don’t know if he’s alive. I can’t be sure he’s dead. Until I see his body, I won’t be able to grieve.” In August 2017, Noura Ghazi learned of the execution of his husband Bassel Khartabil Safadi, five years after his arrest in Damascus and two years after he disappeared. But she doesn’t know anymore. Neither, nor when, or how: “With a gun? Day or night?”.
For several years, this 38-year-old Syrian lawyer, human rights activist, has moved heaven and earth, and around the world, to get answers and regain the “most basic right to say” goodbye “to [son] Husband”.
Noura Ghazi shares the questions that haunt her in “Ayouni“, the latest documentary by Yasmin Fedda which will be released on July 1st. The Palestinian director, winner of a Bafta[équivalent britannique des César]and author of several films about Syria, where she spent her childhood, Noura Ghazi filmed in her quest for the absent. She also followed Immacolata – known as “Machi”, father’s father Paolo Dall’Oglio. This Italian priest, who founded the Syrian Catholic monastery Mar Mûsa, north of Damascus, in the 1980s, was was kidnapped in Raqqa on July 27, 2013 by the Islamic State organization. Then he has disappeared.
Like Bassel and Paolo, about 100,000 people have disappeared in Syria according to Amnesty Internationalafter being arrested by the Bashar al-Assad regime or kidnapped by various armed groups, including the Islamic State organization, since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.
An author’s film about the complexity of emotions
For six years, Yasmin Fedda filmed these two women who did not know each other but were led by a joint drama. “I had started a project on Father Dall’Oglio, who was a friend, when we learned about his abduction. My film then took a new turn,” says the director to France 24. From Iraq to Italy, via Lebanon and the UK, she gathered their confidence, their tears, their questions and filmed their struggle for truth and justice.
“I tried to capture the complexity of their emotions. In six years there have been different phases, everything from anger to hope, but the search for the truth has always kept them standing,” Yasmin Fedda said. As Machi told his brother’s kidnapper in a video posted in 2014: “We hope to hug Paolo in our arms but we are ready to mourn his death”.
Neither a journalistic investigation – although the facts are verified – nor a campaign film for human rights, although “Ayouni” is supported by Amnesty International and the non-democratic organization for democracy Syria campaign, the documentary by Yasmin Fedda is an author movie. A documentary that gives you the idea of war crimes through intimate stories. “It is not just a film about Syria and the war strategy for disappearance, it is also a film that touches on universal feelings,” Yasmin Fedda analyzes.
“Married to the Revolution”
“Ayounisignifile’s eyes in Arabic,” Yasmin Fedda translates. “But it is also a love that we address to the people we love. We can therefore give it a double read: either what people see or a testimony of love.”
Who unites Noura and Bassel, the “newlyweds of the revolution”. The pair met in 2011 during a demonstration in Douma against the power of Bashar al-Assad. Thanks to the video archives, Yasmin presents Bassel, a Palestinian-Syrian activist who played a leading role in the free internet movement, especially by creating Arabic versions of Wikipedia and the Firefox browser. “I wanted to do it before I filmed the absence,” says the director.
The couple got engaged in 2011, before the revolution turned to war. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is already ordering his armies to shoot the protesters, Noura and Bassel still believe in change. “We’ve come this far,” they say in an archive. But in March 2012, Bassel Khartabil Safadi was arrested by the regime. The engaged couple got married in the Adra prison on January 7, 2013 and hid from the guards. Bassel then disappeared from the radar in 2015, the year he is allegedly executed. Should have, a condition that Noura must learn to live, but which she tries to lift relentlessly for almost five years.
Defense against violations in Syria
Activist lawyer and founder of NGO NophotozoneNoura Ghazi has become the voice of the tens of thousands of Syrian families who have seen their beloved disappear into the hands of the government or various armed groups. On June 16, 2020, Noura again appealed to the UN Security Council at the invitation of France’s President Emmanuel Macron.
“I’m here to talk to you about the suffering of the families of the forcibly disappeared, most of whom are men who leave us, women, to raise children without a father,” she said in a video conference. “I am here to talk to you about the violations of Bashar al-Assad that violate our laws and our constitution.[…]I am here to talk to you about the lack of political will to end it. I ask for justice and I am ready to pay the high price. “
A foundation that Yasmin Fedda takes over in his generous and empathetic documentary. “I would be happy if my film made a moderate contribution to publishing their fight,” she concludes.