A Year with Syrian Refugees: The Long Season

    • Festival
    • November 17, 2017
    • By Geoffrey Macnab

    The Long Season follows the daily lives of Syrian refugees in Majdal Anjar, a refugee camp in Lebanon. It started as a TV documentary, but director Leonard Retel Helmrich and producer Pieter Van Huystee were determined to make it into a full-blown feature.

    “How is it in Raqqa?” the refugees are asked when they arrive in the camp. “Not so good”, they reply with obvious understatement. Their home city was under ISIS control at the time.

    Retel Helmrich was co-directing with Syrian artist and sculptor Ramia Suleiman. He spent a year in the camp. As ever, he was using his “single shot cinema” process, shooting in fluid and intimate fashion. The camera always appears to be in the middle of the events it is capturing. It gets very close indeed to the subjects — far closer than any conventional fly-on-the-wall documentary would manage. 

    “If you belong to the refugees, you can only be surprised at the resilience of people in these humiliating circumstances”, Helmrich commented as he set out to give an insight into their lives from their own point of view.

    “It was a joy to work with him. He was like a child, always sharing. The best way to describe him is that he was like a 50-year-old child”, Van Huystee says of the actual shooting process.

    Most of the material was already shot when, in January this year, the director had a heart attack while in Beirut. He went for several minutes without oxygen and was left in a coma. Now back in Holland and under the care of his family, he is recovering steadily but wasn’t in any condition to finish the film. His body is healing. He is out of the coma and left intensive care in April, moving to a nursing home. He is now in a rehab centre, where he is doing well.

    “He has opened his eyes. You get the idea he sees you. Whether recognises you is something else,” Van Huystee says of a recent visit to him. “We have a letter board for him. We sometimes put his finger on a letter and see if he can formulate a word.”

    When Van Huystee gave him a phone on a stick, Retel Helmrich began to move his hands around as if he thought he was filming again. Since then, the director’s condition has continued to improve. His sister, Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich, is confident he will be well enough to assist in the completion of her new documentary, Sounds of Origin, which she is currently editing; about how immigrants from the Dutch East Indies brought American music (in particular, rock & roll) to the Netherlands.

    After long deliberation, producer Van Huystee, working with Suleiman, decided to complete The Long Season. A four-hour time line was in place. Retel Helmrich has written and taught widely on his approach to filmmaking. “In that sense, we know his thoughts about how to cut and when to cut and what not to cut”, Van Huystee says.

    Retel Helmrich has now seen the completed film. His verdict? “He said, ‘I think it is a good expression of single shot cinema.’ He didn’t give any other comment”, says Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich.


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