In Dark Times: Epistolary Films for Absent Friends

Anaïs Farine

Ph.D candidate in cinema studies (Paris III University – Sorbonne Nouvelle) and a film curator

In such times, if things turn out well, a special kind of humanity develops. In order to properly appreciate its possibilities we need only think of Nathan the Wise, whose true theme – “It suffices to be man” – permeates the play. The appeal: “Be my friend,” which runs like a leitmotif through the whole play, corresponds to that theme.

Hannah Arendt, ‘On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing,’ New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, p.12


Black shot. Voice-over. “Where are you today, Omar?” Ellipses, a conversation with Omar Amiralay (Sandra Iché, 2015) begins such as two friends catching up. It seems like taking news from a loved one whose image appears at the centre of the screen,[1] at the very moment when he begins to respond. The speech is gradually accompanied by extracts from films directed by  filmmaker/ director Omar Amiralay between 1974 and 2003, played at the edges or inside this frame within a frame.

       In January 2011, one month before the death of Omar Amiralay, Sandra Iché conducted an interview with him, without realising that it would be his last filmed appearance. In a non-published interview I held with the artist in 2016, Sandra Iché said:

“I decided to interview the permanent staff of L’Orient-Express, a Lebanese cultural and political magazine from the 90's, and some frequent contributors or people whom I knew were close to the intellectual approach of his founder, the historian Samir Kassir. Omar Amiralay was neither a regular writer nor a frequent contributor, but I was touched by an interview With him which had been published in the issue of November 1996 on the occasion of the release of his film on Michel Seurat, On a Day of Ordinary Violence. The interview is entitled ‘The Absent Friend.’ In it, Omar talks about the responsibility that friendship entails, and he poses the question of why friendship – which is a driving force for action, encounter, bonding and loyalty, the latter being a constituent part of Arab literature (ikhlass) – is gradually losing traction. Omar engulfs  himself in this negligence. He talks about the difficulty he faces in expressing feelings and affection in images, about his reluctance to talk about death, about a deceased friend. He says that by talking about the death of others, he was perhaps seeking to hold on tight to what he felt was dying in him. I continued my research on the major figures of L’Orient-Express in 2008, mainly driven by the desire to comprehend the assassination of Samir Kassir; simultaneously to ‘acknowledge’ it – that is, acknowledge the death of a friend – and comprehend what had happened at a political level. Perhaps that is why I was so touched by what Omar recounted during this interview.”

It seems possible to me to analyse several Syrian films produced since 2011 by taking as a starting point this double reference to the films of Sandra Iché and Omar Amiralay, as well as the issue of friendship, which occupies a central position in these two works, and the modes of communication that it elicits. How do directors produce narratives that enable them to address the images of absent friends –  whose last images have been registered by the directors without them knowing they would be their final ones, to whom they wish to pay homage, friends whose work they wish to pursue by playing scenes they had filmed, or by incorporating within their films screen recordings of online conversations with their friends, after they had left Syria – and what kind of intersubjectivity does this act establish? Tackling cinema from this angle allows to shift the question of knowing to whom these films were produced, and what audience(s) they reach, towards a less linear dimension, while examining the possible impact of these films and their spectators’ ability to respond to them.

The responsibility vis-à-vis the disappeared friend, of which both Omar Amiralay and Sandra Iché talk when describing their research and creative process, can be clearly seen in Dellair Youssef’s decision to continue the work initiated by director and activist Bassel Shehadeh, who died in 2012 during an attack by the regime against the city of Homs. Dellair Youssef explains how he used the scenes filmed by Bassel Shehadeh to produce Princes of the Bees (2014) by saying that he did so out of loyalty to the message that his friend wished to transmit: “I wanted to live up to Bassel’s work and honour his memory,” Youssef explained. “Activist Wasseem Hasan, who owned the rights to the film, asked me to finish it, and I decided to do so by respecting both the content and the style.”[2] The film presents a series of images filmed in darkness or framed in half-length portraits showing only the torso of the witnesses in order to preserve their anonymity. These testimonies are interspersed with images of protests. Princes of the Bees thus evokes a sense of shared destiny, which brings people closer together and serves to counter the sectarian propaganda disseminated by the government. Their common attachment to the memory of their friend, Samir Kassir, assassinated in 2005, which initially brought Omar Amiralay and Sandra Iché together While the two had not met before the interview, Ellipses, a conversation with Omar Amiralay is a tribute to the cinematographer that clearly shows how he made the most out of a special type of interview, proposed by Sandra Iché, to engage the audience, through the way he utilised interview mechanisms to generate a sense of collective laughter in the face of an absurd reality, as well as through the way he invites the artist to immerse herself fully in the game she is proposing. ”[3] This game rely on the use of a performance protocol borrowed from artist and researcher Manuela Zechner, who proposed that interviewees situate themselves in the following manner: “We are in 2030 and we are remembering the events of today.”

By adopting a critical and sardonic attitude towards Lebanese and Syrian people in this interview, through the proposed temporal distance, Omar Amiralay does not claim to transcend their reality. He resorts to potential history to mock the present and includes himself in the criticism he makes – just as he did in many of his films, as he explains in the interview conducted by Samir Kassir and Omar Boustany mentioned by Sandra Iché[4] – and seeks to include his interlocutor and, by extension, the spectators of this dialogue. Confident that a possible connivance could emerge, the painful laughter of the cinematographer appears as if it is paving the way for a friendship. In addition to irony, there are moments in Ellipses in which Omar Amiralay pretends to have forgotten a name and invites Sandra Iché to co-produce, with him, his historical and political discourse, by asking her to fill gaps in his memory. Thus, he visibly subverts the falsely unidirectional dynamic of the interview and reconfigures Chris Marker’s famous approach by transposing it from the field of vision to the field of speech.[5] In a sequence of Sunless (Sans Soleil) by Chris Marker (1983)  the voice-over – which tells stories from the letters and images of a cinematographer friend – talks about the “equality of the gaze,” found in  a furtive  look at the camera, which makes room for interaction between both sides of the camera and the screen.This form of intersubjectivity, made possible by the position adopted by the filmmaker at the time of filming, appears in another form in the film Still Recording (2018). In a sequence that starts at the 45th minute of the film, directed by Saeed Al Batal and Ghiath Ayoub, the filmmakers invite their character not to deliver a discourse, but rather to talk to them in precise terms, as if they were his friends (متل رفيقك). This invitation to reposition speech in front of the camera is one of the highlights of the movie which underline the way that the different people who filmed these images try to deliver news – we see them posting videos online several times – by enabling their spectators to respond. It can also be said that the highly literary character of the spoken text in the voice-over in 194. Us, Children of the Camp (Samer Salameh, 2017) is less a sign of an introspective and personal form often privileged by the contemporary creative documentaries and more a particular form of address that testifies the will of the epistolary film to seek out  a you composed of the lost places and missing friends that inhabit the artists’ memory.

    In On a Day of Ordinary Violence, My Friend Michel Seurat… (1996), directed by Omar Amiralay in collaboration with Mohamed Malas, Amiralay has a discrete presence; he is a voice-over, an invisible body that is addressing his friend ten years after his death. However, by collecting testimonies from friends of Michel Seurat who can use the second-person personal pronoun “you” (“tu” and “vous” in French) to refer to the friends that they (Omar and others) were to become for Michel Seurat, the cinematographer subtly drew a picture not only of his disappeared friend, but also of himself as a friend.

Les Chebabs, le film et moi (2019), a film about a film, directed by Axel Salvatori-Sinz, follows the common trajectory of the characters of the director’s previous film – among whom is director Samer Salameh, mentioned above – as well as a testimony on the evolution of these relationships during dark times. It is also a self portrait by cinematographer Axel Salvatori-Sinz, who died in 2018 while directing the film. Qutaiba Barhamji, who was acknowledged in the credits of Still Recording and 194. Us, Children of the Camp, finished the editing of the film. In a scene filmed in August 2013, one of the characters of Les Chebabs, le film et moi manages to reach Lebanon from Yarmouk. While we only see her from the back, silent, a text appears on the screen: “I want to film… I ask her… She replies: Axel, right now, I need a friend, not a director.” What On a Day of Ordinary Violence, My Friend Michel Seurat… and Les Chebabs, le film et moi have in common is that they both present relatively clear portraits of their directors. Likewise Tanseem’s reply reminds us of the statement made by Omar Amiralay in the interview conducted by Samir Kassir and Omar Boustany: “I must say that Michel was not a researcher, strictly speaking. When I hear people referring to him as a researcher, I no longer see in him the person I used to know.”

Letters to disappeared friends are also written by and for absent friends, in the political and collective sense that Hannah Arendt attributes to friendship, drawing inspiration from a poem by Bertolt Brecht, and because, by relying on Lessing, whom she opposes to Rousseau, she distinguishes between friendship and compassion. According to her, the selective nature of friendship allows people to continue to recognise what is unjust, without a false sense of equality. The missing friend could be one who is no longer able to respond in the face of a violent situation. In On the Edge of Life (2017), which largely consists of conversations that the director had with parents who remained in Syria and which shows how their dialogue is dependent on power outages, Yasser Kassab says, in voice-over, that he has become merely a body devoid of its soul and feelings; a body that cannot find the words to answer the simplest of questions and that is ruminating on its position as a distant witness, as is clearly expressed by the Durassian title of his next film, I have seen nothing, I have seen all (2019). In a completely different way Some of the spectators and researchers who managed to watch these films have been unable to answer their call. However, the impact of the forms of address tackled here remain unpredictable;  interpreted in light of a potential history that shows how friendship intervenes in the writing of those films / this epistolary cinema,  those films are / this epistolary cinema is talking to us about directions that have been and are still open.



[1] My analysis in this article is based on the version of Sandra Iché’s work screened during a session held by the Syrian Cinema Club in Paris. The version in question is available on the following link: However, this work was originally conceived and screened as a video installation on three screens.


[3] This type of interview is based on the use of a performance protocol borrowed from artist and researcher Manuela Zechner, who proposed that interviewees situate themselves in the following manner: “We are in 2030 and we are remembering the events of today.”

[4] When told, “This is the first film in which you mock no one” during this interview, Amiralay replies: “The first? No, I have made several films like that. This is the first film in which I do not mock myself. When I mock a certain reality, I do not distance myself from it. I have never said that I am a stranger to this or that reality, that I am not involved in any of this. It is a form of satire that seeks to rub salt into the wound in an attempt to wake people up. That’s all.” ‘Omar Amiralay: the Absent Friend’, interview conducted by Samir Kassir and Omar Boustany, L’Orient-Express, no.12, November 1996, p.98.

[5] I am referring to the sequence in Sunless (Sans Soleil) by Chris Marker (1983) in which the voice-over – which is reading from the letters and images of a cinematographer friend – talks about the “equality of the gaze,” found in the furtive gaze of the camera, which makes room for interaction between the camera and the screen.

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