‘Simple as Water’ Review: Syrian Refugees in Limbo, From Turkey to Pennsylvania

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Eighteen years ago Megan Mylan co-directed “Lost Boys of Sudan,” a memorable documentary chronicling hope and upheaval among seven young men who landed in the U.S. after surviving village massacres during that nation’s second civil war. (There has since been a third.) That wasn’t too long ago in the general scheme of things, yet long enough so her new “Simple as Water” arrives in a very different climate, where such conflicts and their refugees are sociopolitical issues the world over.

Here, the subjects are four families pried apart by Syria’s ongoing civil war, their optimism if not their determination ebbing in the face of bureaucratic and other hurdles to reunion. Portraying exiles stuck in a holding pattern over which they have little control, “Water” is perhaps inevitably not as engrossing as “Lost Boys,” which had the advantage of witnessing real change in its protagonists’ lives. But it’s still a graceful, touching sampler of dilemmas few viewers are likely to have experienced, even as they become ever-more-common reality for the less fortunate in many nations. HBO is giving the feature limited theatrical play before its broadcast and streaming launch on Nov. 16.

In a film sans explanatory text or narration, we seldom get much detail on how exactly the principals came to be where they are, or the circumstances of their initial flight. Nor is there general background on the overall Syrian situation, which has been one of violent struggle between different internal factions (fueled by various foreign powers’ support of government and rebel forces) for just over a decade now.

Instead, the focus here is on the everyday plight of persons whose forced, emergency solutions have turned into long-term ruts from which there are no clear or reliable escape routes. Yasmin is in a tent camp for refugees with her four young children, in an Athens port area under an overpass. They’re relatively new arrivals, if already eager to move on. When that will happen is anyone’s guess, as her husband does not yet have the papers to initiate a family-reunification process in Germany, where he’s landed.

Still more desperate is Samra, whose husband was arrested for his regime affiliations some time ago and hasn’t been heard from since. Now she toils as a fieldworker in Turkey, forced to leave 12-year-old eldest Fayez in charge of the other four kids each day. It’s a strait so dire she’s considering putting them all into the institutional care of an orphanage, an option premature “man of the house” Fayez derides as “a life of humiliation.”

Omar and his younger brother Abdulrahman are in Pennsylvania while they await judgment on their separate applications for asylum. Omar works in a warehouse; the teen, who lost part of a leg when their home was bombed, is doing well in ninth grade. But though they’re everything to each other, the siblings’ future together is uncertain: Because he once served in the Free Syrian Army, Omar is viewed as having “engaged in terrorist activity” by the U.S. government. Their chances might be better in Canada.

A different case is that of middle-aged Diaa, who remains with her husband and disabled youngest child in northwest Syrian city Masyaf. But she seems to spend nearly all her time on digital devices, trying to dig up any word about elder son Mohammad. They sent him to Egypt to escape the “death and destruction,” but he sneaked back without telling them. Now, five years later, they can only hope he is among detainees liberated from ISIS, eligible for a prisoner exchange program. That is, if he is still alive.

Though purportedly shot over five years’ course, “Simple as Water” offers more a series of individual snapshots than anything resembling narrative arcs. However, the film breaks from that in its final segment, as we see Yasmin’s husband, Safwan, in quaint German hamlet Butzbach, sharing accommodations with other Syrian men anxious to be reunited with their families. For him, that day actually comes to pass, and after witnessing so much stressful frustration, this clan’s joy at being together again is very poignant. Whatever adversities they continue to face, one senses, nothing will be so daunting as their separation has already been.

With three credited DPs, Mylan’s visual presentation nonetheless maintains a certain consistency of elegant widescreen composition, and the complementary editorial pace here is concise yet unhurried. An ethereal original score by Hanan Townshend underlines the protagonists’ state of limbo, as they tread water hoping for a more stable future their children can plant new roots in.

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