I’ve been having some rotten luck when it comes to my public screening choices so far this year. Most of the actual bad films, the ones that I can’t chalk up to “just not being for me,” that I’ve seen during my time down here have been at my five public screenings and Sunday night did not change that track with Soudade Kaadan’s The Day I Lost My Shadow, playing in the First Feature Competition. OK, maybe calling it outright “bad” is overstating things or being overly cruel. Shadow is… fine. It’s just fine without much to it or anything particularly unique or strong to make up for that fact. I’m penning this write-up the morning after seeing the film, barely 12 hours on, and I’ve already forgotten almost everything about it.
Which is a real shame given how evocative that title is. Set at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2012, Shadow follows single-mother Sana (Sawsan Erchied) and her young son trying to get by as the conflict rages around them. These opening stretches are the best parts of Shadow by a good distance, showcasing the hassle involved in trying to go about one’s life when war is knocking on your door. First the electricity goes just after Sana puts their clothes in the washing machine and won’t return for the remainder of the movie, necessitating her son spend much of it wearing one of his disappeared father’s massive ill-fitting cotton sweaters. Then prices start doubling as a result of the fighting, making luxury products like hair-dye extortionate. Checkpoints and random “inspections” ramp up in frequency, Sawson’s boss is either taken or has tried to flee the country (neither her nor her friend know which but he hasn’t been seen for a week), and getting gas is a drawn-out crapshoot of a process that can be shut down at any time by soldiers turning up and just claiming all the canisters for themselves. It’s a frustrating, uncertain time made worse by the nightly barrage of gun and bomb-fire despite the belief of a temporary ceasefire.
But it’s also not a purely miserable experience, as Sana improvises ways to keep her and her son’s life ticking along with some semblance of stability and hope. These scenes are sweet, engaging, and provide a deeply human living experience that you otherwise don’t get of the Syrian conflict; the news media being too preoccupied with the bombs, destruction, and dead bodies of those lives that they can use to goose ratings. Which only makes it even more disappointing that Shadow doesn’t commit to it, instead trapping Sana and two friends outside of their city due to misunderstandings that will now almost definitely get them killed, the rest of the movie following Sana’s increasingly futile attempts to get back home to her son. Pretty much the second that Shadow gets out of the city, it loses almost any forward momentum, character or urgency, which is rather ironic. Kaadan fills the rest of her movie up with lots and lots of navel-gazing and sombre reflecting that honestly bored me to tears, the kinds that reveal her characters to be a lot simpler and less interesting than they were at first glance, slowing the film to an absolute crawl despite barely breaking 90 minutes.
Her sprinkles of magical-realism mainly manifest in the idea of shadows as a representation of one’s humanity. Certain characters still have them but others, somewhat creepily, do not, indicating a hardening from the trauma and war around them that they cannot recover from. A loss of hope, strength, the capacity for joy. As with the title, it’s a haunting conceit but not only does Kaadan drive the visual into the dirt by using or teasing it more times than WWE wrestlers do finishing moves, but she also has to have the film itself and Sana call direct attention to both the image and metaphor in case the viewer somehow misses it. Also – and I admit this is a likely temporary issue that will hopefully be fixed by the time Shadow receives an official release – the subtitling job for my screening was rushed and honestly pretty dire. Overly literal, awkwardly written, and at times genuinely confusing due to the lack of appropriate punctuation. It really did not help certain more dramatic scenes when the dialogue felt like a bad fan-sub – a redundant term since all fan-subs are bad fan-subs, I know, but point still stands.
Again, The Day I Lost My Shadow is not a bad film, but it’s not one with much to recommend, either, unless someone wants to recut the movie into a short that exorcises everything outside of the city. Kaadan, in the post-film Q&A, mentioned that she’d been working on the film in some capacity for seven years and it shows. You spend too long on a single project and you can eventually become blind to its potential emptiness.