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BLACK NIGHTS 2020 First Feature Competition

Review: The Translator


- Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf recount the recent turbulent history of Syria in an action-packed thriller that has echoes of Costa-Gavras

Review: The Translator

Showing in the First Feature Competition at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, The Translator [+see also:
interview: Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf
film profile
is a thriller in the Costa-Gavras mould. The Arab Spring and the strong-arm tactics of President Bashar al-Assad to stay in power serve as the backdrop to this tale of guilt, exile and family from first-time directors Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf, who themselves fled Syria, rather than live under al-Assad's regime.

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The central premise is so well thought out and believable that it's surprising that it's made up. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Sami (Ziad Bakri, the star of the directors' award-winning short film Mare Nostrum) is working as an interpreter for the 14-member Syrian Olympic team. When a reporter asks a boxer about his reaction to Bashar al-Assad succeeding his father, President Hafez al-Assad, the fighter repeats what the official Syrian handler tells him to say. However, Sami slightly mistranslates the answer, leading to him going into exile in Australia. The power of words and the need to report the truth are central themes in the film, so it's especially intriguing that the directors start by showing the protagonist's failure to uphold this basic tenet of reporting.

A decade later, and images of the Arab Spring and demonstrations in Sami's home town start to haunt him. When his brother goes missing, Sami decides that he has to return "home" to try to discover the truth and relieve some of the guilt that he feels for living a comfortable life in Australia, while his former friends and family take to the streets.

While the fast-paced introduction to the film and its themes seems overly driven by the needs of the narrative and plot, the filmmakers find better pacing once Sami lands in Syria, where demonstrations demanding human rights are taking place. That's not to say that the thrills stop there: The Translator continues to be a densely plotted thriller with plenty of twists and turns involving journalists, lawyers, broken friendships and family, and there is even a surprising cameo by leading Arab filmmaker Annemarie Jacir as a beaten-up protestor.

It's also noteworthy to see a Syrian-set tale told as a genre film, rather than a haunting refugee drama or a heart-breaking documentary. While the results are occasionally uneven, the film does a sterling job of relating the sense of confusion, fear and hope of the time, helped by the cinematography of Éric Devin (who also shot Soudade Kaadan's Syrian-set The Day I Lost My Shadow [+see also:
film review
interview: Soudade Kaadan
film profile
, which was awarded the Venice Lion of the Future for Best First Feature).

Like Costa-Gavras’ Missing, The Translator is concerned with highlighting how war gets reported and how the truth is often in the eye of the beholder. The strongest moments of The Translator are when it veers into thought-provoking and challenging statements on the power of peaceful protest. The film’s coup de grâce happens when it holds five United Nations Security Council permanent member states to account not just for their failures over Syria, but also for the way that they report and deal with peaceful demonstrations in their own countries.

The Translator is a Syrian-French-Swiss-Belgian-Qatari co-production staged by Georges Films and Synéastes Films, in co-production with Tipi’mages Productions, Artémis Productions, Arte France Cinéma, RTS-Radio Télévision Suisse, SRG SSR, Ad Vitam, Proximus and Shelter Prod. Its international sales are handled by Charades.

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