AFI Fest 2021: Simple as Water, by David Bax
Megan Mylan’s first feature documentary, 2003’s Lost Boys of Sudan, followed Sudanese refugees living in the United States. Now, with Simple as Water, she’s returned to the subject of refugees, this time Syrians who have been scattered across the globe, often separated from one or more family member. Without narration or interviews (unless you count one usage of an archival TV news segment), she elucidates the trauma, pain and longing of her subjects by just letting us spend time with them.
That doesn’t mean Simple as Water is a laidback affair, though. Mylan appears to be working with at least two cameras in many scenes, switching angles within conversations, allowing us to see how multiple people are reacting to the same situation.
And yet, despite the apparent size of the production, there’s a stillness to the film. We open on Yasmin, a woman living in a makeshift refugee camp in Athens with her children while her husband is in Germany attempting to set up a life for the family. We don’t know about all of that quite yet, though. At first we just see her watching her kids, standing quietly and observing as they play next to the port where freighters come and go. It’s a scaled down version of what Mylan spends the movie doing.
Of course, no matter how unobtrusive Mylan’s filmmaking is trying to be, the observer effect will always be in play. But Mylan at least sidesteps being disingenuous about it, leaving in multiple moments in which, say, kids play to the camera. One boy in particular, the eldest son of a widow living in Turkey, seems to enjoy the attention, which makes it all the more tragic that his childhood is being cut short by having to serve as a preteen father figure to his younger siblings while his mother works to keep them fed and clothed.
There are a lot of children in Simple as Water and also a lot of people grieving the loss of loved ones; the film is at its most heartbreaking where these two camps overlap. But Mylan finds many more connections, even perhaps sequencing her film according to them. We go from Yasmin, living as a single mother while separated from her husband, to Samra, an actual single mother through widowhood. We go from Samra’s son, acting as a father figure, to Omar, an actual, legal guardian to his younger brother; the two watch massive ships just like the ones we see in Athens come into Philadelphia. Finally, we make our way to Syria itself, where Diaa waits torturously to learn whether her son is alive or dead. Her pain at the absence of a family member is the starkest example of the main thing that ties these far-flung people together.
Being separated from the people you love is a terrible thing. Choosing to do so in order to protect your children, siblings, etc. must be one of the hardest decisions to make. Simple as Water makes these struggles tangible. And it does so without being dramatic or dishonest. It trusts these women, men and children enough to let them show us themselves.