When you hear the word chaos, your first association with the term probably brings rushed images to mind, along with a disturbing and noisy soundtrack, and maybe even some screen-filling explosions. Watching CHAOS, Sara Fattahi’s second feature-length documentary, you immediately realise that chaos comes in different shapes and sizes depending on the internal and external perception of the individual.
Fattahi brings unbearable emotions to life in a gripping, intense portrayal of three strong and vulnerable women who are united by what separates them – war, fear and trauma. Losing loved ones without finding out what really happened; the depressing realisation that relocating back to Syria is impossible because it’s war-torn soil; that doing so could quite possibly be lethal; struggling with one’s mental health.
CHAOS is a beautifully conceived triangle between memories, isolation, and trauma. Set in three cities – Damascus, Vienna, and a town in Sweden, Fattahi undertakes a study of three women including herself who deal with the aftermath of the Syrian war. The film tells three strands of a barely imaginable story: Heba, living in Sweden who delves into painting as her remedy, Raja in her intrinsic exile in her apartment in Damascus folding her dead son’s laundry over and over again and herself, portrayed by an actress roaming through Vienna.
The women don’t meet and have never met in real life – excluding Fattahi who’s obviously met them all – and are being accompanied by the camera acting as an observer. The women are bravely telling their stories mostly with the help of voice-over narration rather than speaking directly to the camera. At first, it is impossible to see their faces and the film feels like a character study of each of the women, with the overall context coming together in a mosaic-like way.
Those women are connected through Fattahi: not only though her filmmaking, but also on a personal level. Heba, the woman living in Sweden, is one of her friends and Raja is one of her mother’s friends who lost her son and withdrew herself from verbal communication entirely. I believe this is a key factor of why the women put their guard down and are willing to let their pain shine through so openly. The actress portraying Fattahi byhas her journey accompanied excerpts of Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann – Bachmann herself lived in exile having left Austria and after World War II.
This approach ultimately provides the documentary with so much depth, that at some points you feel like an intruder into their personal space while simultaneously being forced to realise war has many faces, and many people are suffering dearly on a global scale.
The conceptual work is impeccable, too. Long, drawn-out shots and artful camera settings are the baseline of CHAOS, giving it a sense of slowness which could be interpreted as the time-consuming and debilitating internal process of keeping oneself alive after experiencing trauma.
Furthermore, the images themselves give a vibe of silence and numbness – for example trees with birds with a backdrop of a grey sky who shall stand for Heba’s internal conflict with living in exile and dealing with a bipolar disorder inflicted by trauma. But also the camera – practically Fattahi – falling down and a women struggling to unlock the door of a flat become powerful symbols of struggle and willpower.
After being approached by Locarno Film Festival, she and her fellow Syrian editor Raya Yamisha managed to finish editing CHAOS just in time for the festival – in only two weeks – where it was graced with a Golden Leopard Filmmakers of the Present – Nescens Prize and various nominations in other sections.
Fattahi lives in political asylum in Vienna, Austria and is already working on her next film which shall target the topic of memories again. Acknowledging her own obsession with memories, she says that it’s a way of travelling back to her Syrian origin, reconnecting with her heritage and culture.