Preserving pieces of home: cultural context for a lost generation
“My humanity won’t allow me to kill as retribution for my suffering. So instead, I kill the rock, to unleash the creation within it.”
Killing the Rock is a film that runs little over five minutes in length, yet it is one that provokes such a visceral, emotional reaction in the viewer, it leaves an impact that lingers far longer than its own short frames. Directed by Jake Viramontez, the film narrates the Syrian war through the eyes of 60-year-old artist and refugee Abu Raja. In Ramtha, Jordan, just five kilometres from the Syrian border where war rages on, Abu Raja fights back, resists, voices his desperate sorrow, anger and defiance, not in bursts of rage but through sculpture. In the face of absolute destruction, Abu begins his own construction.
The Syrian Civil War, now in its tenth year, has shattered the country into devastating divisions. The conflict has created the largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time, affecting around 17.6 million people. There are 6.6 million refugees who fled their homeland as a result of the unbearable violence and 6.1 million are displaced within Syria. Devastatingly, more than half of the country’s population has been forced to flee the tumultuous unrest their homes have disintegrated into, and forced too, to leave behind a presence that predates the violence, what was there before the shrapnel: the comfort of culture, the sense of identity, the blueprint of Syrian life.
In such scattering and erratic dispersion, how do a People retain their recognition of what represents Syria to them, from an attitude or disposition to sounds, smells and senses? With lineage broken either by death or distance, how can the memory of a nation survive and how, when the dust eventually settles, will a new generation learn about their ancestors in a lexis outside of agony and suffering?
As a Western audience influenced by stereotype, ignorance and Eurocentric media reports, we are often limited in our ability to define a refugee as anything other than that. Nationalities are chased by an indispensable adjective: Syrian Refugee. It’s as though we are unable to perceive any context before or after that status, assigning a permanent purgatory that refuses to regress or progress. And it’s not just the people upon which the West too easily assigns a narrative, but on the country itself, the cause of conflict, the culture.
A key part of our Lost and Found collection was highlighting the disparity between how this fundamental pretext of the refugee experience is missing from Western perception, and yet how much it defines it for those who live through it. Approximately 50 per cent of all registered Syrian refugees are under the age of 18 – and millions have grown up knowing nothing but conflict. For these children the comfort of home isn’t available to them first hand, only through the stories of older relatives who have known a Syria of relative peace, of family, laughter and love.
This is exactly the dialogue that Killing a Rock starts:
“The message that is carried in my art to our children and grandchildren is that we were builders. We wanted to build our country and to build our character.
To be reborn, to be a people full of forgiveness, a people full of love, to live a dignified life.
May they know that we weren’t destructive, but that we were building.”
How in this violent split, such an aggressive, physical divorce from one's homeland and all that you’ve ever known, do you manage to retain a sense of that original identity? And harder still, persevere enough of it for it to become knowledge for a future generation, who will need to relearn their culture outside of its context?
Like Abu, you distil it into emblems recognisable as your nations own: from sculpture to human empathy, from foods to morning rituals. In the absence of a full image of home - a concrete, well defined picture informed by all the fullness of life - there are pieces, fragments of the picture that can be preserved enough to tell part of the tale, preserved until the whole story can be seen in colour once more.
About the filmmaker
Jake Viramontez is an award-winning storyteller, who has directed films in over 30 countries covering topics from female empowerment through soccer in Sao Paulo to Syrian Refugees in Jordan. The Orchard bought and distributed his debut feature documentary, Like Air which climbed to iTunes top 10 documentaries worldwide in its opening week. His love for sports garnered Chevrolet five Clio awards for the GoalKeepers campaign he directed, and his latest work with Accenture received seven Cannes Lions for his direction in their JFK Unsilenced campaign.
Creating cinematic images in real world scenarios has made Viramontez a sought-after director for Google, Chevrolet, Pepsi, Oracle, Sonos, Rosetta Stone, Uber, World's 50 Best Restaurants, The United Nations, Panda Express, Habitat for Humanity and many more.
Sources: All stats taken from https://www.unrefugees.org/emergencies/syria/