A Syrian war film with a difference, Nezouh is a delicate and engrossing entry in Venice’s Horizons Extra section. Director Soudade Kaadan won Lion of the Future for 2018’s The Day I Lost My Shadow, and she continues to impress with this empathetic story of life under siege.
The focus is 14-year-old Zeina (Hala Zein), who lives in Damascus with her mother Hala (Kinda Alloush) and father Motaz (Samir al-Masri). Motaz is trying to keep the family together as the walls crumble around them and their neighbors flee, but his wife would rather become displaced than see him risk his life foraging in the war-torn streets. She seems even less keen to see Zeina married off to a fighter, as her other daughters have been, while a worse fate could await young women who stay.
When an explosion blasts holes through their walls and ceiling, Motaz busies himself hanging up flowery sheets, implicitly emasculated while clinging to the idea that he is protecting his family. This father’s fragile ego may need just as much protecting as the women do, and the gender dynamic in the family begins to subtly shift.
One factor in this is Zeina’s blossoming womanhood. An early scene between mother and daughter fills us in while underlining an effect of war that’s rarely shown on screen: period poverty. Zeina begs her mother not to tell anyone she’s started menstruating, aware that it may put her at risk, but is still defined by an innocence and optimism. This is a teenager who dreams, looks to the skies and finds beauty amid threat.
Aided by excellent VFX, Helene Louvart and Burak Kanbir’s cinematography reflects this. Light is used to create heart-wrenching contrasts: bullet holes make tiny, beautiful stars on a floor, and a blast in Zeina’s ceiling leads her to a magical hiding place on the roof, where she has secret meetings with her young neighbor Amer (Nizar Al Ani). A kind and entrepreneurial boy, Amer is using abandoned media equipment to make his own film. Zeina doesn’t want to watch anything with a sad ending, though. “A film in Syria where no one dies?” Amer says, half incredulously, but rises to the challenge in the way you hope that Kaadan may do, too.
Nezouh is a charming watch that blends feminist fairytale with real-life drama. Zeina and her mother are often being told to cover up and hide, but listen less and less as they begin to spread their wings. When the focus shifts to mother and daughter, there are tender scenes in abandoned streets and schools. A unworn pair of red high heels plays a part in the striking symbolism. But there’s still sympathy for proud, desperate patriarch Motaz, who clearly loves his family.
“Nezouh” means “displacement,” and the power behind this word is shown by its many uses in the film. Sometimes it feels like an offer, other times a threat or an insult. This is a film that humanizes the refugee experience, creating a portrait of a relatable family struggling with the terrible decision of whether to leave everything behind.