Venice 2021 review: Al Garib (Ameer Fakher Eldin)

“Al Garib is one of the year’s most unsettling voyages into the heart of the human condition, and a film that leaves a mark as indelible as the scars found on many soldiers and civilians that they tend to conceal from the outside world.”

“Perhaps our fault was that we tried to create some meaning for our existence.”

There is an old fable about a soldier returning from war, sporting an enormous, unsightly beard that he refuses to shave regardless of the pleas of his family, with the revelation being that he grew it to hide the scars of battle that would permanently remind himself and others of his role in the war. This is a good starting point for looking at Al Garib (The Stranger), a beautifully poignant but deeply unsettling portrait of life during wartime, directed by Ameer Fakher Eldin in his feature film debut. Early on in the film one of the main characters is the subject of remarks surrounding his decision to hide behind facial hair, a common feature in Syrian men. The film tells the story of an unlicensed doctor trying to survive in the Golan Heights, a mountainous region in Syria that has been under Israeli occupation for over half a century, who finds both his faith and resilience being tested when he encounters a wounded stranger (assumed to be a casualty from the conflict) that he unfortunately fails to save. The film is a powerful testament to the experiences of those who fall victim to the harrowing nature of war – it starts as a slice-of-life drama with some subtle but sinister overtones that gradually envelop the film, and subsequently evolves into a distressing depiction of violent combat.

Eldin approaches this story in a way that is narratively straightforward, with most of his more ambitious directorial decisions coming through in the visual realm. On a purely plot-based level, Al Garib is remarkably simple – it follows a coherent line of logic and never entirely deviates from carefully conveying the main character’s journey as he navigates an increasingly hostile environment, which he can’t escape simply because he has always called this region his home (and the likely possibility that life in one of Syria’s major cities will be difficult for someone who has survived through living on the margins of society for so long). Other than a few scenes set in either the past or future, the film stays quite consistent in showing his experiences working through the challenges of making a living in a country where anyone can become either a martyr or a statistic. The conflict that has encompassed his nation for nearly his entire lifetime serves as backdrop for the story, with the feeling of palpable suspense being far more unsettling than any direct depictions of violence, which are conveyed through implication rather than being explicitly shown on screen.

War is a subject that has been discussed for about as long as storytelling has been a cultural hallmark, so it would have been extremely surprising if Eldin managed to say anything we haven’t heard before – but even when reiterating the worn-out but vital concept that not all wars are fought on the battlefield, he makes a profound statement that is only enhanced by the continuously mounting tensions between characters. They exemplify, as one of them says midway through the film, that “there is no clean side in any war”, and that regardless of the origins all conflict is inherently harmful, both in the immediate circumstances and in the long term, which is where the film bears the most thoughtful and impactful commentary. Any logical viewer will know that war is inherently negative, and that reminding us of this fact is redundant, so the director instead pursues a more abstract perspective, using the medium to put gorgeous visual compositions in direct conflict with haunting socio-cultural commentary around the nature of warfare on a psychological level.

Instead of noting the terrors of war, the film is far more internal and focuses on exploring the mental and emotional impact of long-term conflict, using the main character of Adnan (played masterfully by Ashraf Barhom in one of the year’s most heartbreaking performances) to represent an entire population of people who may not be directly involved in the war, but stand to become victims of the perpetual violence. Like many of his compatriots, Adnan is held in both physical and mental captivity, with the director drawing comparisons between the occupation of this region and the recurring motif of a sickly cow that slowly starts to produce more blood than milk as a result of her entrapment. These brief excursions into the abstract, as well as the stunningly shot depiction of the arid, war-torn landscapes of the Golan Heights, reflect the main character’s psychological state and demonstrate how he is on a metaphysical journey that allows him to see beyond the supposed unimpeachable truths he always believed to be fact, uncovering a horrifying vision of reality.

Al Garib is a challenging film to describe since it doesn’t lend itself to straightforward analysis. This is a work propelled less by narrative nuance, and more by the creation of a distinct atmosphere, which the director curates to allow the message at the heart of his film to gradually become more clear. It is a fascinating blend of social drama and anti-war parable that gives the viewer a vivid glimpse into life in the Golan Heights, a corner of the world that is rarely (if ever) explored, whether artistically or geographically. Eldin’s passion for this subject is present from the first establishing shot, where the hypnotic artistic flourishes sharply contrast with the quiet fury that consistently simmers throughout the film. This creates a perpetual oscillation between harsh portrayals of the wartime experience, and strikingly beautiful glimpses into everyday life, the duality creating an unforgettable account of this seemingly never-ending conflict. Al Garib is one of the year’s most unsettling voyages into the heart of the human condition, and a film that leaves a mark as indelible as the scars found on many soldiers and civilians that they tend to conceal from the outside world.