The Translator takes us to Syria, to the heart of the repression of citizens demonstrating for dignity and freedom. Meeting with two filmmakers committed to this powerful work.
Directed by Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf, The Translator tells us a poignant story partly taken from a true story. In 2000, Sami was the translator for the Syrian Olympic team in Sydney. A slip of the tongue during the translation forced him to stay in Australia, where he was granted political refugee status. In 2011, the Syrian revolution broke out and Sami’s brother was arrested during a peaceful demonstration. Despite the dangers he decides to risk everything and return to Syria to go free him.
The filmmakers, very committed to the fight for freedom in their country of origin, answered our questions about this feature film with a powerful and important political message.
AlloCiné: Can you explain the origin of the project to us?
Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf: We were living in Syria in March 2011 with our two children when the revolution broke out. Immediately we knew we had to make a film about these historic events. We started to create a story of two brothers: an activist and one poles apart from it, a translator who hides behind other people’s words to exist!
Is the plot around the translation problem based on a true story?
Not exactly. The syrian olympic team in sydney did have a translator, but he made no mistake in the translation. However, we have heard several stories of slips or tiny errors in translation which led to the arrest, even torture of their authors, in Egypt but also in Iraq, in addition to Syria.
It seemed to us such a dramatic starting point for our protagonist, and also an awareness for Western viewers of the gravity of the consequences of such an error, however tiny, in these countries.
Silence is not an option.
Why is this Sami character important to you?
Sami represents all those people around the world who need to take the risk to say out loud what they are fighting for and what they aspire to. Silence is not an option.
Why did you choose Ziad Bakri for the main role?
We worked with him on our short film Mare Nostrum, we think he’s one of the best actors in the world. He has become our muse. The script was written with him in mind for the role of Sami.
In what settings did you shoot to recreate Syria?
We shot in Amman and in the suburbs of Amman. We lived in Jordan between 2014 and 2017, so we had time to get to know the neighborhoods and places that most resemble Damascus. We wanted to create an illusion for the viewer to believe that they are looking at Damascus on the screen, even the viewer who knows the Syrian capital!
Did you encounter any difficulties and pressure from the Syrian government to dissuade you from making this film?
No, not from Syria. But Jordan, even though it gave us filming permits for 5 weeks, was rather worried about what we were creating, with the re-enactment of scenes of peaceful protests bloodshed by the Syrian regime.
In the end, the Jordanian cinema commission preferred not to appear in the credits of the film. Today we understand why. A week ago, the rapprochement between Damascus and Amman was initiated after 10 years of radio silence between the 2 capitals.
How to manage to mount financing with such a sensitive subject?
With a lot of patience, a lot of perseverance and a little luck! We had to knock on the door of many countries to seek funding and subsidies beyond France and even beyond Europe!
For example, Germany or Norway said no, but Switzerland and Belgium said yes to this story. In the end, this film is a co-production between 8 countries, on 4 continents.
Women have been a pillar of the Syrian revolution.
You also show the plight of women in Syria through different and strong characters like Loulou (Sawsan Arsheed) and Karma (Yumna Marwan). What is your view on the place of women in your country of origin?
We know many strong women in our families and among our friends. Therefore, it was obvious to us to create strong female characters in this story. Women have been a pillar of the protest and of the Syrian revolution.
How do you work with two directors on the set?
We try to work in total symbiosis, taking all the decisions together, as if we were one! Obviously, it is easier said than done because we also each have our own sensitivity and our own emotions to manage in front of the images which are created before our eyes. The most important thing is to have the same vision of the film that we want to make.
The situation has continued to deteriorate for 10 years, between the civil war, then chemical weapons, the advent of Daesh.
In your opinion, has the situation in Syria changed since the 2011 revolution?
No, it has rather regressed! The situation has continued to deteriorate for 10 years, between the civil war, then chemical weapons, the advent of Daesh, the intervention of the Russians and Iranians. There was also Hezbollah and then foreign fighters sent to Syria, the exodus of millions of refugees abroad, the displacement of millions of Syrians inside Syria. It’s a tragedy.
Have the recent events in Afghanistan permanently destroyed the hopes raised by the Arab Spring?
The hopes aroused by the Arab Spring were destroyed by the interests of the politicians of the great powers, but also the contempt and disdain of the international community for these peoples who peacefully demonstrated for their most basic rights, freedom and dignity, while they lived in ruthless dictatorships.
How do you see the Taliban takeover? Can we say that the 2011 situation in Syria was repeated in Afghanistan?
The Taliban’s takeover of power caught (almost) everyone by surprise, and it all happened very, very quickly. The whole difficulty for this militia of 70,000 men is to stay in power in a country of 38 million inhabitants, this is the real challenge for the Taliban, not as easy as it sounds.
The situation in Syria is completely the opposite, the militia in power has seen millions of citizens take to the streets to claim their rights. Daesh appeared on the regional and then international scene 2 years later, at the end of 2013.
The great powers of this world should let the citizens of the Middle East take their destiny into their own hands.
How to get out of this authoritarian spiral in the Middle East?
Complicated, the great powers of this world would have to let the citizens of the Middle East take their destiny in hand.
Do you have a new project on the go? Can you tell us a bit about it?
Yes ! 2 other films on Syria: The Photographer, on the incredible epic of Caesar, the Syrian defector who exfiltrated from Syria 50,000 photos of Syrians tortured by the regime to present them to the UN in order to bring down Bashar al-Assad .
Honest Politics, the story of a woman hired by a Syrian politician to teach him how to use English in order to create empathy despite the violent actions of her government.