Sailing the Euphrates

The Euphrates is a dream, a river, a myth, a space that does not exist, the Garden of Eden, Ararat, the (lost) ark, Mesopotamia, Babylon, the Eastern origin of the Western world.

2,700 km-long, the Euphrates is the result of the confluence of two main watercourses. The first one, the Kara Su, rises in Turkish Armenia, approximately 100 km from the south-western tip of the Black Sea. The other one, the Murat Su, rises roughly half way between Lake Van and Mount Ararat. After flowing for 1000 km in Turkish territory, it enters Syria, and finally Iraq, running for another 1000 km. Close to Basra, it joins the Tigris in the Shatt al-Arab, which empties into the Persian Gulf in a broad delta complex.

The Euphrates crosses political and sentimental borders in Armenia, Turkey, Kurdistan, Syria and Iraq, but it itself was frontier—the northern frontier of the region comprising Palestine and Syria, stretching from Egypt to Babylon. During the Persian Empire, it divided West and East, as indicated in the expression “beyond the river”, and later on it also marked the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.

How is one to tell the story of the Euphrates?

How to do so through cinema? Perhaps by letting oneself be carried away by the peaceful river current, like the red apples in Nahapet, by Henrik Malyan—the first cinematic, epic reading of the Armenian tragedy, which adapts Hrachya Kochar’s novel about a genocide survivor, and which was produced by Soviet Armenia—or by the boat belonging to Zaman, l’homme des roseaux, who leaves his paradise in order to treat his sick wife while in the background the war echoes cross this nearly clandestine production, contrary to Saddam Hussein’s regime, which is bordering collapse.

Our own Euphrates starts in Armenia with the first Armenian film, Namus, directed by Hamo Beknazaryan in June 1926. It is a silent film that narrates the everyday life of a small provincial town in the late 19th century. In Armenia, the 20th century starts with the genocide of its people, the legacy of a crumbling Ottoman Empire under the advances of European colonial powers that draw other borders, causing other conflicts and wounds that will cross the entire Age of Extremes, and that still bleed today.

And the Euphrates gathers the blood-red apples.

And cinema tells, witnesses and documents, but as it seeks to travel the river’s waters and follow time and space, it also discusses ghosts, what’s out of frame, and the before and after, almost trying to make reality and its myth coexist, which turns into a weapon for truth and for survival, as we can see in Éclats d’Arménie, gathering of four short films by Jacques Kébadian.

For Euphrates is also the symbol of diaspora, of exile: the Iraqi Hebrews from Baghdad Twist, by Joe Balass, who are forced to leave Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the late 1960s; but also the inhabitants of the Sha.. al-Arab, which are sent to the border with Iran for war reasons, and then chased away by the pollution in the river (Al-Ahwar and Sawt, by Kassem Hawal); and even the “exiled films”, shot in captivity and secretly edited in exile, like the Golden Palm, Yol, which was accused of revealing another “imagined” territory”: Kurdistan.

The Euphrates is also a faded dream.

The dream of Pan-Arabism, of the socialist revolution embodied in the Baath Party both in Syria and Iraq; the dream of an investigating, popular, political cinema like the one carried out by Omar Amiralay, Oussama Mohammad and Mohammad Malas. A critical, significant cinema that was able to survive the war that still devastates Syria through a generation of film directors (who are exiled, and thus again a diaspora far ff the river) capable of questioning European and Western cinema’s language and conscience, as the performance Ghouta Expanded 2.0, staged by Donatella Della Ratta, Ammar al-Beik and Aghyad Abou Koura, will show.
— Davide Oberto