Oscar-nominated documentary ‘A Broken House’ steps into a Syrian artist’s oeuvre, with a diving lens
In one of Syrian-born artist Mohamad Hafez’s stunning 3D pieces, a figurine of the Virgin Mary stands before an ornate gate, her hands clasped in prayer. The building around her, rendered in plaster, paint, rusty metal and found objects, is reduced to rubble.
The work is called “Why have you forsaken us?”
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Hafez created the piece in 2017, amid the civil war that devastated his homeland, and reduced architectural treasures to smoldering rubble. He built the work in Connecticut, where he lives, far from his native Damascus – a place that, for him and for so many others driven from their homeland, exists only in memory.
Courtesy of Jimmy Goldblum
“Mohamed’s art is stunning when seen in person,” Goldblum told Deadline. “He creates a perfect sculptural rendition of a Damascus cityscape. And then he destroys it. For him, the only way to capture the kind of brutality of war was to embody the very process of war almost himself. .
Hafez came to the United States in 2003 to study architecture. As an Arab and Syrian national, it was difficult to obtain a visa in post-9/11 America, and the single entry permit he obtained meant that if he left the United States to visit his country, he would not be allowed to return. Effectively abandoned in the United States and missing his birthplace, he began to rebuild it in his workshop.
“If you can’t go home,” he says in the film, “why don’t you go home?”
After the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the places he had cherished as a child were shattered. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed and millions displaced, including Hafez’s family.
“Mohamad’s parents had to flee Damascus and come to live with him in New Haven, Connecticut, and then his four siblings were dispersed to four different countries,” says Goldblum. “His sister became a boat people, ended up in a refugee camp in northern Sweden.”
Her parents later separated; Hafez’s father, a trained surgeon, remains in the United States, while his mother has returned to Damascus.
“She comes [to the U.S.] and she’s a second-class citizen. She doesn’t speak English very well,” notes Goldblum. “People look at her in a certain way. Sure, she’s safe, but she’s isolated, and she’d rather be at war with her sisters in her culture than feel alone.
Hafez is not only a gifted artist, but a renowned architect from Pickard Chilton. He has a green card, which allows him to travel abroad. But there are reasons that compel him to avoid Syria.
“He can no longer return to Damascus,” says Goldblum, “because he will be drafted into the army” – forced into the service of the hateful dictator, Bashar al-Assad. In the film, he visits his mother in the nearest place.
“Beirut is only an hour’s drive from Damascus by highway,” notes Goldblum. “But it’s a whole other world he can’t go back to.”
In this regard, Hafez shares much in common with refugees around the world. In 2017, he collaborated with writer Ahmed Badr – an Iraqi refugee in the United States – to create the multimedia installation “UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage”. The artist’s website states, “Hafez sculpturally recreates rooms, homes, buildings, and landscapes that have suffered the ravages of war. Each is steeped in the voices and stories of real people – from Afghanistan, Congo, Syria, Iraq and Sudan – who have escaped from those same rooms and buildings to build a new life in America.
Like the exhibition, the documentary aims to reframe the perception of refugees.
“If you don’t understand that refugees come from a culture, then maybe you [believe] they are parasites, which they take from America, if they are only tent people, ”says Goldblum. “But these people came from their homes and they came from cultures that they had to leave behind. And for me, it was extremely important to come up with a fix for that narrative, just as Damascus is the oldest inhabited city on the planet. Mohamad like to say that there are doorknobs in Damascus older than the United States of America.
The pandemic may have altered Americans’ ability to sympathize with refugees, Goldblum says.
“Covid kind of showed us all helplessness, like, we all missed weddings, funerals and birthdays. It has been a global collective experience – and it has been the experience of refugees and immigrants in America since its founding… They always had to give it all up,” comments Goldblum. “I think in Covid we have no control over something as basic as our connection to our family or our homes. I just think audiences are reacting really deeply to this feeling of homesickness from immigrants and refugees that I don’t know they would have had two years ago.
A broken house is available on the New Yorker website. Unlike how most documentaries are made today, it was not shot on video.
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“I shot on super 16mm [film]. My experience of seeing the Mohamad sculptures in person, you could smell the dust on them, you could smell the particles,” says Goldblum. “They are so physical. I wanted to shoot on celluloid, I wanted to honor the physicality of the sculptures by using a physical format.
To immerse viewers in the artwork, he delved into a filmmaker’s toolbox.
“We used a dive lens, which is a very long lens, like in Hollywood movies where you build a model of New York and then you push the hurricane,” he says. “The dive lens brings things to scale. All of a sudden it allows you to blur the lines between Mohamad’s art world and the real reality of the Syrian war… It makes for a really interesting experience to be in Mohamad’s mind.
A broken house qualified for the Oscar by winning two awards at the Palm Springs International Shortfest in 2021. It is one of 15 shorts to make the coveted Oscar list. Members of the Documentary Department are currently voting to determine the final five nominees. Goldblum recalls the elated moment when he learned his film had been shortlisted.
“It was like the biggest dopamine rush in the world,” he recalls. “It’s really exciting, crazy and overwhelming.”
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