'In Syria there is no black and white,' says this Syrian filmmaker

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Marco Werman: When the civil war in Syria started, it was described in simple terms: “Opposition rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad.” Basically “good guys versus bad guys.” But then the lines got blurred. Extremists forced their way into the conflict and redefined bad guys. Even before that though, the good versus bad narrative was too simplistic. Syrian filmmaker Ali Sheikh Khudr gets at that with his new film called “The Cow Farm.” It’s about his own cousin, Hassan, a farmer who raised cows but was forced to join the Assad army. Ali spoke to us from Turkey, where he’s living now.


Ali Sheikh Khudr: Basically, the story goes back to 2010. It was quite a different project in the beginning. I wanted to make a documentary about my mother’s family, and I headed from Damascus where I live and work also, I headed to my hometown called Salamiyah, it’s in the countryside of the city of Hama, in the middle of Syria. So, I went there to make this research, and I had my camera with me, and the first character that I filmed in that research was my cousin, Hassan, who was at that time 28-years-old, I guess. I was fascinated by his character and I was fascinated by the passion that he has for his cows, and also the state of isolation--he lives in the countryside--and the fact that he prefers cows to human beings, and he thinks that cows feel more than human beings, and understand more. In this case, it’s a little bit different from films that have been made about Syria lately, that the revolution started inside the film, during the time of the film, because the film started completely as a different project and the revolution that happened in Syria at that time changed everything in the end.


Werman: Right, and it’s such a contrast with the life that Hassan has with just these cows that he loves; it’s totally peaceful. And then he’s recruited to join Bashar al-Assad’s army. What happened then?


Khudr: When you see Hassan in 2010 and then you see him in 2012, it’s quite obvious on his face that he’s tired and there is something that is making him so nervous. Yeah, of course the whole country has started to go into a state of war in 2012, and yeah, of course, life was so difficult in that time. But you feel that there is something more stressful in the character of Hassan because now he has to sell the cows and leave his dream and go into the army. If you ask me why he did not refrain or avoid going there, it is basically because he was desperate actually, I think. It’s not because he wanted to fight for his country or because he loved the army. Everything was already destroyed and he started to lose his business and everything. So yeah, that’s why in the end he just gave up everything and joined.


Werman: I mean, his is a very sad story. I’m just wondering--we’re not going to give away the end of the film--but it’s interesting to see this guy, because in war we tend to hear about the players, the soldiers, the people who suffer, the extremists, and we rarely seem to hear about regular people, like a cow farmer who just wants to have a good life doing his thing. Do you think Hassan represents most of Syrians?


Khudr: Well, quite a big majority of the Syrians, actually. A big majority of the Syrians. People, in the end, want to leave, and now in Syria there is no black and white. There’s not even good. It’s not the same anymore. The film is like an attempt also to invite people to start listening to each other. I was against the regime and I was part of the demonstrations against the regime, and my cousin in the film is with the regime, and we both have this dialogue. People who are from the other side have always been portrayed as criminals or killers, and also they portray us the whole time as being terrorists, and both of them are victims in the end.


Werman: Why did you decide to leave Syria?


Khudr: Basically because I was about to be wanted for military service. In Syria, if you are over 18 and you are not studying in university, you have to go into the military service. So, I had only two months before I became officially wanted, so basically that’s why I left Syria. And for other reasons, because economically life stopped.


Werman: Can you go back? Do you want to go back? Do you think about going back?


Khudr: I want to go back, of course. But I can’t because apart from being wanted for military service, also the country is not stable at all. It’s in a state of war, so yeah, I can’t go back. In view of what’s going on now in the whole region, not only in Syria, going back might take a long time, actually.


Werman: Syrian filmmaker Ali Sheikh Khudr. His documentary about his cousin, Hassan, is called “The Cow Farm.” Ali, thank you very much for speaking with me today.


Khudr: Thank you so much.