In soft black and white, rows of plastic tents spread abstracted and beautiful over the desert. But as the lens widens and the vista shrinks, viewers sit face to face with a four-year-old boy, bed-ridden and immobile from atrophy; with his mother, despairing of a clean environment to care for him; with a teenage girl lamenting the loss of her studies. In the documentary A Requiem for Syrian Refugees, director Richard Wolf gives his subjects, Syrians living in a refugee camp in northern Iraq, a platform to tell their truths.
The result is urgent, deeply painful yet lovely in its aesthetics. The refugees rarely display their sorrow openly. Instead, in interviews, they discuss practical matters, like improved sanitation, or political anger: “My message to those who have power is: Stop making fun of us.” But when a wedding interrupts the camp’s tedium, the blank expressions of the celebratory dancers suggest that they cannot forget their reality long enough for joy.
Periodically, Wolf inserts a flat black screen bearing text, factual and emotional: “Watching on television fruitless negotiations about the civil war makes the refugees feel powerless…” This tactic might seem heavy-handed, but its cumulative effect is brutal. Requiem is an argument for humanity, as unsubtle as its title. Civil war, destruction, and dislocation are not subtle experiences.
The weight lifts only briefly, when a man plays a video of his village on his phone, and when a girl finds a camera and begins documenting life in the camp. Images are escape, and the respite they provide underscores the resonance of unspoken pain. It’s hard to look away, and important to keep watching.