The Translator, “a love letter to the peaceful Syrian protesters”

In March 2011, peaceful protests were held in Syria after fifteen boys had been detained and tortured for their support of the Arab Spring movement. Uprisings happening in Tunisia and Egypt being able to overthrow dictatorial governments had inspired Syrian protesters and encouraged them to demand a better future. However, Bachar al-Assad’s violent repression led the country into a civil war which is still destroying Syria ten years later. According to the United Nations Human Rights office, at least 350,209 people have been killed in the result of the war. According to the Syrian observatory for Human Rights, they were 500,000.

Through their first feature-length film, The Translator (2020), filmmakers Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf, who fled the country in 2011 and 2012, wanted to pay tribute to the peaceful Syrian protesters and their bravery. In the film, Sami, a Syrian translator in exile in Australia, comes back to Syria in an attempt to rescue his brother, imprisoned by the regime after having demonstrated. In this article, Syrian-American director Rana Kazkaz looks back on this “love letter” to the peaceful protesters.  

Elise Ceyral : You have already directed several award-winning short films, some of them also addressing the Syrian revolution, such as Mare Nostrum (2016). However, The Translator is your first feature-length film. Why did you and your husband choose to start this project now and why did you choose this format? 

Rana Kazkaz : Before the revolution started, we were actually on the way to make another feature-length film, called “The Hakawati’s daughter”. This is the one we thought that we were going to be making years ago: the script was ready, we were financing, giving casting, etc. And then, when the revolution started, rightly so, nobody was interested in this film, because it was not relevant anymore. 

At the same time, we felt this need to testify and process what was happening in Syria. One of the reasons why I make fiction is because it helps me process reality. So, this film, The Translator, became a way for us to process what was happening, and also for us to communicate as husband and wife because we were separated. I left Syria one year before him, so for this one year, communication was very difficult between us, because it was hard to know what was happening to our family. And so, this film became the way for us to reconnect as well. 

Anas and I were also very much on the same page about our experience in Syria and the kind of story we wanted to tell. We were very moved by the films from the 1970s and 1980s by Costa-Gavras – who is a Greek-French filmmaker – [such as] “Z”, “Hannah K.”, “Missing” … These political thrillers were a genre we really liked. Because we make fiction, it soon clicked in our minds that The Translator needed to be a political thriller.

E.C : The Translator focuses on the ongoing conflict in Syria, which you decided to flee as you were worried for your children’s as well as your own safety. How did it feel to reflect on this painful personal story?

R.K : This was actually something hard to do. When we were making Mare Nostrum, although it was a very sad topic, there was something about the energy we had achieved while making it that was very joyful and life-affirming. But, when it came to The Translator, it felt like there was actually something very toxic about the story, and I’m still trying to understand why. 

I don’t know if it’s because it ends so hopelessly, […] because there was so much trauma in the making of it, [or] if it had to do with the level of fear we felt to make it, but the personal journey of making this film was psychologically difficult, emotionally difficult, personally difficult and physically difficult. This film was very difficult. 

I feel like I need to understand how the next one doesn’t have to be that difficult because it’s very hard to put yourself through something like that through a lot of years in a row.

E.C : The main character, Sami, also left Syria after a more-or-less circumstantial mistranslation. Did you in any way identify with him? Did you feel the need to portray this more distant relationship to the conflict?  

R.K : I think as a writer, what happens is that there is a part of you in every character. You can identify with aspects of every character. In a way, you need to, because that’s how you make these people three-dimensional. 

But Sami is very much meant to resemble the journey that we took as well, where we have to examine our own responsibility, our culpability, find our voice and figure out how to hold ourselves accountable for feeling as we ran away rather than doing something.

Sami, picture from the film

E.C :What inspired you to write this story in particular? Why did you choose this main character? 

R. K : It’s interesting because a couple of things happened. First of all, Anas was really inspired by this story of two brothers. I was more inspired by this story of this family that is torn apart. And I think there’s a bit of a mix of the two in the result. 

When we made Mare Nostrum, I met Ziad Bakri, and making Mare Nostrum with Ziad Bakri was such a pleasure. In him, I felt like I had found a kind of muse, an actor that I could write for, that knew how to interpret the writing. It felt like there was a match. And so, after Mare Nostrum, the character of Sami really started to evolve in a clearer way, because having met and worked with Ziad Bakri in Mare Nostrum.

E.C : The movie starts and ends with the sentence “We want freedom, we want dignity”. These requests have been at the heart of the Arab Spring movement within the different countries, starting with the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution. What do these calls mean to you?

R.K : Through this film, I feel like I started to understand what dignity meant. I mean, both concepts are abstract: freedom and dignity. But on some level, freedom is a word we hear often, and [we know] what makes us feel free, when we do not feel free, etc. But I feel like the question that I really had and investigated for myself is what dignity is, and what it means to live without dignity. And to get to the point where you feel you have no dignity left that you’re willing to risk your life, in order to at least perhaps have dignity in your death. 

Thanks to this film, I feel like I am paying more attention to the ways in which people need to feel dignity and in the ways to which people are robbed of having dignity. And the thing about dignity [is that it] is something you are born with. It is something that you deserve simply because you’re human. So, I think this adds another layer of intrigue for me because it’s a human right. And so, when we talk about human rights’ violations, we are also thinking about what violations attack our dignity.

E.C : The Arab Spring started with Tunisian street-vendor Mohamed Bouhazizi’s immolation on December 2010. Even though requests for democratic reforms were substantial, the Arab Spring started as a cry of despair regarding socioeconomic struggles and corruption. Do you think that these issues have been overlooked by foreign governments when assessing governments’ responses to the Arab Spring?

R.K : Yes, I do. I think that we, as human beings, get very used to living a certain way and we don’t question at what cost for other people.  [It makes me think of this discussion we had] of what it means to be a “refugee” versus a “migrant”, and how people prefer to call this a “migrant crisis”, whether than a “refugee crisis”. Because if it’s a refugee crisis, people might have to examine their own responsibility and what causes a refugee crisis. If it’s a migrant crisis, then we get to justify perhaps our lack of compassion or inaction, because we are blaming the other people for choosing to leave, rather than questioning why they had no choice but to leave.

Sami during a protest, picture from the film

E.C : In the film, the character of Karma is especially interesting. She seems distant, sometimes harsh with her brother-in-law, because she can’t understand why he left his country without a fight. Her anger is the Syrian people’s anger. However, the film also shows how sad and lost she is. Why did you choose to create such a character?

R.K : Obviously, stories need conflict. So, we needed to put Sami in a situation where the conflict just wasn’t […] what was happening in the country, with regards to the government, but also a personal conflict. And what I like about this relationship between Sami and Karma is that they are united in their quest to find Zayd, and that little by little [they] – Karma more obviously, but Sami also – begin to challenge and push each other’s ideas. They both leave changed as a result of that relationship, and at the end, for me it’s something very moving that she says to him: “Thank you for coming”, whereas the first time she meets him, that’s not at all how she feels.

E.C : On the other hand, Sami is often accused of being a coward, hiding behind others’ words. However, throughout the story, this character starts to speak up against the regime. Would you say that this film is an invitation to act, to find your voice? 

R.K : Exactly, you said it perfectly. This is a way of asking all of us to understand what it means to have a voice.

E.C : This film shows how crucial language is when it comes to dictatorial regimes such as Bachar al-Assad’s. Do you think that art in general – poetry, literature, but also cinema – is able to drive change? Would you describe your work as a filmmaker as activism? 

R.K : Yes, on both on those counts. I know that art can change a life because it has changed mine. I know that. And then, yes, I think that, for me, filmmaking is a form of activism.

E.C : One thing that we can say for sure is that the Syrian regime feels threatened by art. After having made this film, you won’t be able to come back to Syria to see your family and friends. How did you decide on such a choice and how do you face its consequences? 

R.K : So far, there have been no obvious consequences as a result of this film, thank goodness. But I think the awareness of what this film was going to mean to us personally evolved over time. I mean, there was a journey even for us, in realizing what it was that we were trying to do with this film. 

E.C : The actors you chose are activists, some don’t want their names to appear in the film because they are afraid. How do you deal with such a responsibility as a filmmaker?

R.K : I think it’s such a good question because on the one hand, you want to create a safe environment for the participants and give an opportunity for people to work and act, or be on the crew, make the film… And, on the other hand, by nature, acts of creation require a kind of manipulation, even [documentaries]. Stories have to be well-crafted in order to arrive at some meaning, and this means making use of what people have to offer, finding what people have to offer, and then, making them okay with whatever it is they’re offering. 

With a movie like this, it wasn’t easy all the time, because when we were casting some of the smaller roles that were played by Syrian refugees, many of them had been through horrible events already. And yet, for the making of this film, we were often asking them to put themselves back in that horror. And I was very aware and moved by the process of casting, because it was clear that the actors wanted to tell the story of what happened to them. They wanted people to know.

E.C : Did you feel like you owed this film to the Syrian people? 

R.K : It’s a love letter to the peaceful Syrian protesters, yes.

Sami and Chase, picture from the film

E.C : In western countries, Syria is often associated with waves of migrants, depicted as a “crisis”. Living abroad, how do you feel about the way Syria is depicted by foreign media and governments? 

R.K : It gets back to this idea of whoever owns the narrative owns the story. And I think why western media outlets become so crucial is because if a story is picked up in western media outlets, then it somehow feels validated. It’s somehow a way of saying: “This has been deemed worthy of being paid attention to”. So, when Syria is discussed in the media, there is a satisfaction of knowing that people find it relevant enough to discuss. But then, brutally so, when it is not being discussed, what it does is it affirms fear that already exists, which is that you are not relevant of being discussed. 

And, one thing that was painful was that, in the beginning, when peaceful protesters’, citizen journalists’ videos were getting out in the world, there was a phrase that was often uttered when it was played on a news channel. They would say: “These images cannot be verified”. I remember that that phrase made me feel really sick, because it made me aware of the privilege of verification, who gets to decide if it’s true or not.  Somebody is risking their life in front of you, and yet, somebody can watch that footage and say: “They say it’s true, but we’re not sure if it’s true.” And all of this feeds into where we are today, which is that nobody knows which narrative to trust anymore. We don’t know what to call the truth anymore.

E.C : The film addresses the responsibility to protect (R2P), a global political commitment endorsed by the United Nations to prevent atrocities from being committed, and shows how Syrians react to the international community’s commitments. Did you feel like you needed to remind western audiences that real people are directly affected by these decisions?

R.K : Yes, this question of the responsibility to protect is a question I really have. How interested as a world are we in this idea that there are governments that citizens need to be protected from? That citizens of certain countries have to be protected from the violent actions of their own government? It is why certain governments might try sanctions to force the government to behave in a certain way, to comply in a certain way. 

But, I’ve cynically come to understand that the reason why R2P is not upheld is because every government is complicit. Every government is complicit in things against their own citizens. If they suddenly accuse a government of doing this, and this, and this, then, guess what? The tables can turn. Belgium sold the chemical weapons to Syria. 

[Editor’s explanation: three Belgian companies were found guilty of shipping 168 tons of a substance potentially used in the making of chemical weapons to Syria between 2014 and 2016, breaking EU legislation.]

E.C : Do you feel hopeful about the future of Syria?

R.K : I do, but I think it’s going to take a long time. But part of the reason I’m hopeful is that I want to believe that people everywhere are paying attention and learning.

E.C : And I feel like films can help.

R.K : Well, they can do their part.