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Valley of Exile: A candid film about Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Iranian-Canadian director Anna Fahr’s film “Valley of Exile” paints an honest picture of two Syrian refugees’ harrowing journey in Lebanon.

Valley of Exile: A candid film about Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Rima and Nour, two Syrian women who find refuge in the Bekaa Valley in Anna Fahr's film “Valley of Exile.” (Credit: Morning Bird Pictures)

Anna Fahr’s first feature film has one clear merit: It is touching and paints an honest picture of the harrowing journey of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The journey is that of Rima and Nour, two sisters who fled Damascus and found themselves on the road to the Bekaa Valley, where they were welcomed in a camp, waiting to find something better.

Plain sincerity

“Valley of Exile” doesn’t overflow with cinema effects or aesthetics and succeeds in presenting a clear tale of exile, far from the miserabilism often deplored in films on refugee journeys.

The film is set in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, in 2013. The story is correlated with the political reality of the war in Syria, unlike so many other tales that seem to perceive migrants as quasi-romantic figures outside history.

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The spatial and time frame is established by showing television news, the difficulty of leaving and the desire to return to the country once the war ends, setting the record straight on emigration as a choice or a constraint.

Anna Fahr recounts the daily reality of exile without pretension or tremolos. This lack of miserabilism is reflected first and foremost in the choice of her characters: Nour and Rima. One in skinny jeans and a ponytail, the other in a hijab and sweater: Two ordinary young adults have personalities and differences are more important than their refugee status.

The shots and settings are meticulously planned but never aestheticized, otherwise it would have been completely at odds with the reality of the camps. The difficulties in exile are revealed in small details: The blisters on their feet from walking too much, or the incessant clatter of their suitcases on the gravel.

This is added to the scenes of everyday life: Children filling water cans, women harvesting potatoes and laundry being hung. These shots contrast with those of the Bekaa, which are always very wide and empty. These vast areas are like the unknown opening up in front of the main characters’ eyes. How do they imagine themselves and where do they go when they could see nothing but a small refugee camp stranded in the valley?

An image from the film "Valley of Exile" by Anna Fahr. (Credit: Morning Bird Pictures)

A touching tale

It’s also a personal quest for Rima and Nour, who have dropped out of university and school and work as cleaning ladies, with no hope of returning to their former lives.

Nour gazes longingly at old photos to melancholy music, but despite the scene’s simplicity, the viewer understands what is important in this common act.

The wise character Haifa hosted them in the camp, a Palestinian woman who carries within her the weight of several migrations. She may also seem conventional but she speaks of the region’s roots in exile and the image of the woman as bearer of legacies.

Weaving lives

The film explores solidarity and femininity. Rima and Nour find refuge and support to navigate this radical change in their lives with Haifa and her niece, like a baton that women pass on to each other.

An eloquent scene illustrates this solidarity when the four characters surround Rima’s belly as the child kicks for the first time. Rima tirelessly knits sweaters for her son, even when she realizes she’ll be raising him alone.

The film teaches us about the endurance of women who weave their lives with the threads they were given, with what was not planned, with the regret of what could have been different and with the fear of not knowing where they are going.

“Valley of Exile” continues to tour the world after it screened in April at the Beirut International Women Film Festival and the Aflam Arab Film Festival in Marseille.

Anna Fahr up close

Anna Fahr is an Iranian-Lebanese-Canadian multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker and founder of Morning Bird Pictures Inc. (formerly Sepasi Films, founded in 2003), a production company dedicated to creating films with a social impact, focusing on the contemporary Middle East and its diaspora.

Her narrative short, “Transit Game,” speaks about the refugee crisis in Lebanon against the backdrop of the war in Syria. It has screened at over 50 international festivals since its premiere in the fall of 2014, winning awards in Berlin, San Francisco and Florence, among others.

Her first independent feature documentary, “Khaneh Ma: These Places We Call Home,” examines issues of cultural identity and dual nationality from the perspective of three generations of Iranians living in Iran, Canada and Germany. The film was screened at international festivals and was released in Montreal.

This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour, translated by Joelle El Khoury and edited by Yara Malka.

Anna Fahr’s first feature film has one clear merit: It is touching and paints an honest picture of the harrowing journey of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.The journey is that of Rima and Nour, two sisters who fled Damascus and found themselves on the road to the Bekaa Valley, where they were welcomed in a camp, waiting to find something better.Plain sincerity“Valley of Exile” doesn’t overflow...