THE STORY – Portraits of Syrian families displaced and fractured by war create a meditation on parental love that is both urgent and timeless.
THE CAST – N/A
THE TEAM – Megan Mylan (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
By Daniel Howat
Academy Award winner Megan Mylan’s latest documentary, “Simple As Water,” is an unassuming documentary on its surface but still manages to pack an emotional punch by the end. The film utilizes five vignettes told in five different countries, each focusing on a different family of Syrian refugees. The narratives are all unique, presenting each displaced family who are struggling with the aftermath to varying degrees. Through Mylan’s singular lens and brilliant storytelling, we’re hyper-focused on the humanity at the center of this refugee crisis rather than the statistics or news reports behind it. When taken in as a whole, “Simple as Water” is a profoundly human and powerfully moving film.
Throughout the movie, Mylan and her team remain invisible as they take a distinct fly-on-the-wall approach to capturing the five stories. Besides title cards indicating each vignette’s main character and location, the viewer is provided no further context. There are no sit-down interviews. No one speaks directly to the camera or references the camera in any way throughout. We are simply watching life unfold for these five families as they navigate the difficult life of refugee status. This lack of context is initially jarring, as we naturally anticipate some level of exposition and clarity. Soon though, it becomes clear that this helps to humanize the subjects and the challenging obstacles life is hurling at them. This isn’t about an event, war, politics, or anything else– It’s about people.
The first story presented is about Yasmin, a mother living in Greece with her children. They’re waiting to be reunited with her husband, but bureaucracy keeps the family separated for now. Safwan, Yasmin’s husband, is in Germany, working and waiting to see his family again. While much of “Simple as Water” is tragic, Yasmin has hope for her family to be whole once more.
Next, in Turkey, Samra is another mother, alone and caring for her kids. There seems to be less hope for Samra, whose husband was “taken” and never heard from again. Without hope of a reunited family, Samra struggles to support her children while working full-time. Fayez, her oldest son at 12 years old, does much of the caring for his brothers. He’s already assumed the role of father for the children, and you can see the incredible burden placed on him to provide for his siblings. When Samra tries to enroll Fayez in a boarding school, he sadly says about his brothers, “I don’t want them to feel like they’ve lost their dad.” It’s heart-wrenching to watch as we get a sense that this is quite a familiar story for many other families.
The third story deals with Omar, who is a delivery driver living in Pennslyvania. Waiting to hear the outcome of his petition for asylum, Omar lives with his teenage brother. Initially, this vignette seems far disconnected from the other stories as we see Omar working a typical American job. He takes his brother to school and meets with the teacher to discuss his grades. Yet, under the surface, there’s an impermanence to their story. How long will they be able to stay? Here, Mylan walks a delicate balance in keeping her objective eye distanced from the subjects while including footage of a CNN interview of Omar before he left Syria.
For Diaa, the next subject, it’s the inability to find answers that are killing her. Her sons went missing years ago, yet she still searches for explanations behind their disappearance every single day. She scours social media and news reports, looking for any sign of her sons, all the while caring for her other son, who is disabled. Very little hope is presented here, and the results are terrifyingly soul-crushing.
Mylan wisely ends the film with the bookend to Yasmin’s story, this time from her husband’s perspective. It subtly reframes the first vignette we initially saw, filling us up with hope once more and ending the film on a positive note not to make it such a dour experience while still maintaining its emotional impact.
“Simple as Water” is deeply intimate as it invests the time to show these five stories as-is. It’s as truthful as documentary filmmaking can get making it a quietly subversive experience. While many similar documentaries would flesh out the accounts with the surrounding geopolitical narrative, Mylan brings the reality of the geopolitical landscape front and center. Instead of bombed-out buildings and news footage showing rockets launching across the city, we spend time with the people most affected by the conflicts and develop strong connections with each of them. Sharp editing, profound storytelling with a mixture of sadness and hope make “Simple as Water” a worthwhile documentary.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Lets five powerful stories unfold in front of the camera without ever getting in the way. Humanizing and incredibly moving. The vignette structure allows the stories to be compelling, sad, uplifting, maddening, and hopeful all at once.
THE BAD – The film is subtle, without interviews or commentary to help the storytelling, so it may not engage some viewers.
THE OSCARS – None