Review: The Day I Lost My Shadow (2018)

Is cinema capable of talking about war without being graphic? The answer is yes. Documentary filmmaker Soudade Kaadan’s first fiction feature, The Day I Lost My Shadow, is a moving portrait of a woman trying to retain some semblance of normality in a Syrian war zone. 

Sana (Sawsan Ercheid)
In a Damascus neighbourhood, there is a palpable sense of urgency as Sana (Sawsan Ercheid) and her son, Khalil (Ahmad Morhaf Al Ali), run up the stairs in their apartment building. Unease is ramped up when a security agent demands to know where they’re headed, and as they pass by a family on the lower floor having a funeral. When it is revealed that their panic is actually an attempt to reach their apartment to do laundry while the unpredictable water supply lasts, it sets the tone for a film about war which is set mostly away from the action, instead positioned in the domestic sphere and on the sidelines. Bombs are dropped, but they are only heard and not seen. Carnage and bloodshed are implied, hovering in the background like an ominous cloud. 

Soudade Kaadan, director
Kaadan wanted to make a fiction feature film portraying the emotional experience of the war in Damascus, and she makes good use of the recurring motif of the shadow (or lack of). Kaadan was inspired by photos of Hiroshima, where all that’s left of its residents are shadows on the wall. In her film, characters who are still alive walk around, perfectly normal-looking, except that they cast no shadow. It’s as if they aren’t really there. The trauma that Damascus has suffered is obvious through the physical damage it has sustained, but the trauma of its residents is often invisible. 

Speaking about the casting process, Kaadan said that only the four main characters were played by professional actors, while many of the extras were Syrian refugees from various refugee camps. During the shooting of the film on location at the border between Lebanon and Syria, many of the actors would start crying because of the memories of people they had lost during the war. 

Reem (Reham Al Kassar)
Jalal, Reem and Sana are trapped outside of Damascus. Sana notices Jalal has no shadow.
On her search for a cylinder of gas for her stove (to cook dinner for her son and herself), Sana teams up with siblings Jalal (Samer Ismael) and Reem (Reham Al Kassar) to travel out of Damascus through heavily controlled borders. Things go awry and they end up stranded outside the border of the city, trying to find a way back in without being arrested. In this section, the camera mirrors the fear and helplessness of the characters, panning 360 degrees as if searching for a solution, met only by desolate landscape. There are no answers here, as echoed by the open-ended conclusion. However, Sana's story and the stories of those she met during her journey leaves a distinct mark on the mind of the viewer.

The Day I Lost My Shadow won the Lion of the Future award at the Venice Film Festival and represents an exciting new development in Syrian cinema. From finding ways to skirt censorship by Syrian authorities before the war, to speaking out frankly about the war, to now a more reflective and emotional engagement with the lived reality of war time, Syrian cinema continues to find its voice and bring fresh perspectives to the screen.

The Day I Lost My Shadow was screened at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival as part of the Asian Feature Film Competition.

Written by Jacqueline Lee

Jacqueline writes bite-sized reviews encompassing all genres of films on Instagram at @filmage. She was a part of the SGIFF Youth Jury in 2015. She likes cats and Creepypasta.
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