The Long Season (2017)
Directed by: Leonard Retel Helmrich | 117 minutes | documentary
Together with Syrian camerawoman Ramia Suleiman, documentary maker Leonard Retel Helmrich spent about a year at least a few days a month for ‘The Long Season’ in Camp Khiara, one of the many tented camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, on the border with Syria. . Originally founded by Syrian seasonal workers, mostly from Raqqa, it has become a compact community where women rule, while men try to rule the roost. Helmrich’s characteristic ‘single shot cinema’ technique, in which a small hand-held camera intuitively follows the action from as close as possible in smooth movements, makes you feel like a voyeur of the daily worries and personal dramas.
The documentary has a special genesis. During the editing period, at the beginning of 2017, Helmrich was in a coma for weeks after a cardiac arrest. After consultation with his family, producer Pieter van Huystee completed the film together with Suleiman. Shortly before the premiere at IDFA 2017, the barely recovered Helmrich was able to see the end result and gave his approval in the form of a raised thumb. Although he was not involved in the final editing, it is completely his film. The end result contains the storylines and themes that he gradually discerned and went through with Suleiman.
Helmrich’s way of documenting consists solely of observing. After he and Suleiman formed a bond with the inhabitants of the tent camp, they started filming. ‘The Long Season’ is presented completely without context, which can be a slight obstacle for inexperienced documentary viewers. But the editing is such that there is a clear story, with a number of main characters.
Such as family head Abu Hussein, who takes a second wife, Zahra, in addition to his pregnant wife Yisra. From the start, the two women are close to each other, which leads to a few intense fights, which Hussein tries to keep aloof from. Or teacher Maria, who has completed a university education and feels like a failure because she is now a refugee in a tent camp. Despite the warnings of the others in the tent camp, she strongly considers following her father’s will and returning to ISIS-occupied Raqqa to get married. (Anyone who has seen the documentary ‘City of Ghosts’ knows what a horrible fate probably awaits her there.) And fellow teacher Hamoud, who expresses his secret love for Maria to others, but not to Maria herself. When she seems determined to go to Raqqa, he then marries another woman.
‘The Long Season’ shows the mutual scheming, sadness and uncertainty of the camp inmates. The documentary does not pass judgment anywhere, but it is tempting to assume that Helmrich is siding with the women who have to survive in a strictly patriarchal society. Sometimes it is a pity that the documentary does not elaborate on something. If, for example, Hamoud’s wife-to-be opens up to Zahra, about that she expected to live more freely in the camp, but that Hamoud turns out to be very conservative about her casual clothes. For those who think that the men can do just about anything, there is a nice boost in the form of Abu Hussein’s son, who cuts himself in the arm if the girl he wants to get engaged to shows no interest in him. When he takes her father aside in the hope that he will plead for him, he is told to put it out of his ‘chicken brain’.
People are often hard on each other, but they also have fun. With, for example, an improvised pinball machine, or a snowball fight. The scenes in the school are especially encouraging. But at the same time intrigued and intrigued. Everyone is talking about beloved Syria, but it is not safe for anyone to return. It is heartbreaking that despite the horror stories from Raqqa, Maria is seriously considering following her father’s will. The documentary does not tell what eventually became of her. But there is a plan to make a sequel that will follow some of the people on their return to Raqqa, Ramia Suleiman told the Filmkrant.
All in all, the chosen form makes ‘The Long Season’ a special and, above all, penetrating documentary. Sometimes the work is a bit too voyeuristic. For example, if a little girl runs away sad after a conflict, the camera will keep spinning around her to catch a glimpse of her tears. On the other hand, this method does provide a picture that is as honest and intimate as possible. The fact that especially unpleasant character traits of some of the refugees are shown is particularly commendable. This is not a plea to help refugees because they are pathetic, this is a nuanced portrait of a displaced community longing for a war-ravaged homeland. As Zahra points out, “Hell here is better than hell there.”