Living in a refugee camp is, as one of the main characters in documentary The Long Season says, one hell exchanged for another. We all know how deceptively commonplace that hell can be; we also know that it can always get worse – precisely because people are so inclined to normalise. The Long Season takes us to one of the relief camps for the now more than 9 million Syrian refugees, roughly 1.5 million of which currently live in Lebanon, amounting to more than 25% of the total population – by far, the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide. The vast majority of them live in overcrowded, substandard housing, with others living in informal settlements, despite the lack of formal Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. Many camps, such as the one featured here, are spread throughout the Beqaa Valley, between Damascus and Beirut. Before the war, many Syrians worked as seasonal labourers in agriculture, but when their home cities were taken over by IS, they were stranded. They stayed.
“What’s up in Raqqa?”, an elderly Syrian asks the man who brings life supplies by minibus. “Not so good”, the man says, dryly. “Are my brothers okay?”, asks another. Again, a sparsely encouraging answer: “Not really”. Then life in the camp goes back to its daily routine. In The Long Season, Dutch-Indonesian filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich filmed the lives of Syrian refugees for more than a year. That could’ve produced a melancholy account, as the conversation above might suggest, but the opposite is true.
Helmrich became came known for his multi-award-winning triptych about Indonesia, with Eye Of The Day (2001), Shape Of The Moon (2004) and Position Among The Stars (2010), about the story of a poor family in Jakarta during the chaotic years of emerging Islamisation and post-resignation of President Suharto. Retrospectively, not only through its form, but also through its content, Helmrich was a visionary, as in recent years, a lot of material has been produced about the issues surrounding refugees and forced migration, in an attempt to get us close to people that we as the audience could’ve been, had it not been for a lucky throw of the dice.
Due to the intimacy of Helmrich’s Single Shot Cinema style, we live the events and emotions of the residents. The Long Season is driven by its characters – what they feel, how they move, how they react. This is more than a mere special effect, in that it creates a form of proximity that is intimate but never voyeuristic; the camerawork from Birdman and The Revenant does the same thing, in a certain sense. Here, it conjures up the energy, resilience and frustration of the refugees as directly as possible.
At the same time, the dynamic images, without explanatory voice-overs, provide the situations in which the residents move away from a predominantly cheerful tone. We’re worried about the fate of school teacher Maria, who has to choose between following her own path or obeying her father’s wish and get married at home in Raqqa. We hold our breath when two women, both holding knives, argue while cooking. We share the joy of children playing with a pinball machine made by a teacher from rubber bands, nails, clothes pegs and rope. There’s even scene where a man climbs into a high improvised electricity pole and a drone camera flies up calmly.
Of course, the film doesn’t escape from the images we already know: improvised tents, houses, vegetable gardens, schools. Life goes on – but life is never normal again, despite all the everyday recognisable images of (mostly) women who run everything: people too close together, waiting for stress and collective depression. Displacement doesn’t have much to do with what you leave behind, according to the observations of the film, but with the lack of future perspectives. The camera’s there when the men express their frustration about trying to return to Raqqa. Certainly, everyone can survive on a square metre – man is elastic, and as long as there’s flour and water, industrious women’s hands will bake bread. As long as there are children, there will be teachers like Maria who organise improvised schools. But the trauma is constantly dormant under the surface, and so film and camera constantly navigate between those two fields of tension: resilience and frustration.
As we spend longer in the camp, Helmrich zooms in on a single family, just like in his previous trilogy, to tell the big story through the little one. Abu Hussein has to deal with his pregnant wife Yisra, but is determined to get a second wife to the camp, while his son thinks that finding a marriage partner is a way out of his hopeless situation. These are also the moments when nothing from ordinary life – birth, love, death – turns out simply. Everything and everyone is a dormant volcano, waiting to erupt.
Listening to these refugees, you can’t help but marvel at the resilience of people in such circumstances. Somewhere, there must be a deep-fitting adjustment mechanism, or a displacement mechanism, not to go under. What do you do if you’re dependent on someone who suddenly asks three times as much money for renting a few square metres of land? You get angry and get frustrated – but you know that you have to stay calm, because you can’t risk the welfare of your children.
The Long Season couldn’t have been produced without the precious help of Ramia Suleiman. A Syrian visual artist, she left Damascus when the war broke out and made her debut as a cinematographer in this film, also helping Helmrich in gaining the trust of female refugees in the camp. Most of the material was already shot when, in January 2015, Helmrich had a heart attack which knocked him out of action for a while, with producer Pieter van Huystee and Suleiman assembling the rest of the film.
It’s a cliché – showing human resilience in the face of misery and despair, but the way in which The Long Season manages to do it, deserves high praise for giving the audience the opportunity to feel what it’s like to live in a refugee camp for a couple of hours.
Dir: Leonard Retel Helmrich
Scr: Leonard Retel Helmrich, Pieter van Huystee
Prd: Pieter van Huystee for Pieter van Huystee Film
DOP: Leonard Retel Helmrich, Ramia Suleiman
Music: Khyam Allami
Country: Netherlands / Lebanon
Runtime: 115 minutes
Winner of the IDFA Award for Best Dutch Documentary and nominated for the IDFAAward for Feature-Length Documentary, The Long Season is ready for the world stage and will have its UK premiere on the 11th March 2018 at a screening at the BFI Southbank in London, part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, followed by a Q&A session with cinematographer Ramia Suleiman and Gerry Simpson, Associate Director, Refugee Rights Program, Human Rights Watch
The Long Season will screen from March 16th at Bertha DocHouse