Valley of Exile (2023) – Film review
There’s a very powerful line of dialogue in Anna Fahr‘s dramatic feature Valley of Exile. One that’s spoken from the heart and represents exile, trauma and the mindset of refugees all around the world, whatever the conflict. Najwa Kandakji‘s Haifa is a refugee living under calm circumstances. She’s comfortable but yearning constantly with the nostalgia that her homeland represents for her. She tells the story of when she was a child and her father would tell her and her sister stories about Palestine and olive groves owned by her family. The conversation leads to Maria Hassan‘s Rima asking if Haifa has ever gone back to Palestine, to what Haifa simply replies: “We’re Palestinian, we can’t go back to Palestine”. In this very random reply, terror is normalized. The terror of having your home taken away from you, and your childhood being erased from your memory. Haifa feels what all refugees feel, and Rima accepts with no hesitation what the world has accepted from global conflict.
Rima and Nour have escaped from Damascus, as the Syrian war has already started. Rima is pregnant and her baby will be born soon. Nour is a teenager with a hunger for life that goes beyond her sister’s more conservative values. Rima is keen on reuniting with her husband in Lebanon and raising her child away from violence. But Nour just wants to find their missing brother and perhaps go back. Both sisters clash continuously because their goals differ. Heavily.
As Rima is forced to work as a housekeeper, she connects emotionally with a lonely man who represents stability. It’s not a romantic setting because Rima can’t look away from the promise her husband has made to her. Nour goes into all sorts of trouble to find the truth about their brother. This pulls both sisters into the underworld of a city that’s already broken and with a population that’s already traumatized. Both women are only supported by other female survivors whose families are already ghosts, victims of conflict and terror in the wasteland.
Fahr’s Valley of Exile is a beautiful story of resilience made with enough heart and sincerity that you can’t help but feel it’s a story told from the inside of its conflict, a witness testimony framed under a cinematic structure that contains the basic elements of a narrative, but never pulls any punches to be a mainstream genre story. This is just a glance at the terror faced by two sisters who are on the verge of starting the most important part of their lives: they will become survivors of something they can’t understand, but whose possible effects are already on their minds. They just can’t bring themselves to talk about it.
Valley of Exile is a great reflection of female resistance, motherhood and care beyond the basic human values. Superb performances, a cinematography that speaks highly of the crew behind the indie feature, and a great story to tell that transcends every variation of narratives you’ve seen in the past about human survival in dire circumstances.