Culture, Europe, Globe, Screen, World

Sand and Blood (I): Iraq and Syria through the prism of refugees

A group of Syrian and Iraqi refugees living in Austria talk about their experiences and what has happened to their countries, as a voiceover while YouTube footage is being shown. They have a wide range of views: although many Syrians want the Assad regime to end, stopping the war is more important.


Angelka Spangel and Matthias Krepp

Graham Douglas


“Sand and Blood” is Matthias Krepp’s first full-length film and was made while he and Angelka Spangel were studying at the Vienna Film Academy, in Michael Haneke’s class.

The film was finished at the end of 2016 and the people in it arrived between 2013 and 2015.

They are not rich, but they were able to afford the costs of clandestine travel to Europe. They include an architect, a farmer, a truck-driver. It is divided into chapters and covers what happened in both countries since they have been at war. People talk about their shock when things that seemed impossible to change suddenly happened, such as the downfall of Iraq’s ‘father of the Nation’, Saddam Hussein, and the spread of revolution across the Arab countries to Syria in 2011.

At the beginning the Syrian revolution was peaceful demonstrations seeking democratic reforms, but after a year people were no longer fighting for freedom, but just to survive the brutal onslaught of the Assad regime, and its shabiha, or paid thugs, many of whom were criminals released from prison for this purpose. Sectarianism has been promoted as a divide-and-rule tactic.

Both countries were permissive places in the 1960s, but the coup by Hafeez Al-Assad turned Syria into what Yassin Al-Haj Saleh calls a privatized state, run for the benefit of the Assad clan.

At least 10,000 people were massacred in 1982 after a revolt by the Muslim Brothers in Hama, and many people spent years as political prisoners, 16 years in Yassin’s case, and were tortured.

In the film people talk about the way violence has become normalized to the extent that people laugh when someone is murdered in front of them: “His feelings are exploding, he has no goals, what do you expect – that he should be reading Shakespeare or Victor Hugo?” Matthias spoke to The Prisma, at the New Directors Festival in Espinho, Portugal.

 What drew you to this subject?

It started as a university project. When I was visiting a refugee camp in Upper Austria, with a friend, I met a Syrian guy and we trusted each other immediately. As a team, we owe him a great deal, because he opened the door to meeting Syrian an Iraqi refugees. And talking with him influenced the way we approached the film. Many people agreed to be filmed without showing their faces because they were worried for their families’ safety in Syria. We spent about 6 months just doing research, and quite often people would show us YouTube clips to substantiate their stories. And that’s how the film was shaped. The footage is all on the web, even though the clips they pointed out to us involved them personally.

Having got involved almost by chance, how do you feel about it now?

I had been interested in the Middle East before, and the things that happen in this part of the world affect European societies.

The refugees that came within the last couple of years are somehow a reminder of that fact. Having first-hand experience with people and establishing a dialogue makes it easier to overcome cultural barriers or at least identify these barriers, and I enjoyed many moments like that.

Austria has an anti-immigrant reputation, I remember seeing the satirical film Auslander Raus, by Paul Poet.

That was at the time of the first right-wing coalition in Austria, 16 years ago. As a citizen, I’m in many ways critical of what is happening in Austria, but we didn’t want to create a ‘message film’. We wanted to show the contradictory stories that we experienced. One of the Iraqis in the film put it very well: “You Europeans are so funny, either you throw stones at us or you throw flowers. Can you just stop throwing things?” It was extremely important to give the refugees a warm welcome, especially in 2015, when the situation got out of control in Hungary and on the Austrian borders. Clothes and blankets were more important than films. But as a filmmaker I cannot offer any solutions on such a complicated subject.

How do they feel about their new life in Austria?

If I say that they are doing well it sounds as if everything is okay in Austria, and you can’t generalize. The Iraqis in the film have temporary asylum status for 1 or 2 years, and they are allowed to work, and the Syrians all have full asylum status. Most of them have moved to cities for work, although some preferred to stay in villages to learn German quickly.

Do they feel that the revolution has been betrayed by the jihadis?

Of course, and the sad thing is that many of them are stuck between positions that they don’t support. Some of them are now ready to, as it were, shake hands with the dictator. Not because they are reconciled with the regime, but because they want the war to stop, and the Jihadists are not an alternative. Many people feel like the guy in the film: “It’s not a fight between good and evil. It’s a fight between the bad and the worse.”

In the film someone said: “after the first year no-one is fighting for freedom any longer, only for survival or revenge”.

Yes, many people feel like that, and some of my friends who were involved in the first demonstrations and wanted to use peaceful methods of opposition – they feel betrayed. But there are also older people who don’t like the regime, but were against demonstrating, because they knew what would happen – from bitter experience.

I was touched by the guy talking about a conversation, where he says: “we shouldn’t be doing this, Muslims don’t kill people”. And his friend shows a video of soldiers taking a woman away, and says “That’s your sister, what are you going to do?” He has no answer. In the midst of war people still seem able to think about moral issues. We are too cynical or sophisticated in Europe.

This guy is a close friend now, and we talked a lot about this. We wanted to integrate this aspect of normality into the film. Of course we, as Europeans, were lucky and privileged, to grow up in the safest time and area of the world and we are not used to think in these categories. But I also remember my grandfather’s generation talking about their experience in war and dictatorship. It wasn’t abstract, it was part of their lives. That includes the people who opposed the Nazi Regime. Quite often they used some kind of black humour, talking about their experience, to distance themselves psychologically.

Photo: Pixabay

One Syrian friend has been in Austria for four years. One day he was worried about his wife because there had been bombing in their area. When she finally answered the phone, she said “It’s Mother’s Day, I was shopping”. That doesn’t mean that the danger she was in wasn’t real. It was her way of maintaining a normal life, as much as possible. After the phone call, my friend felt relieved, but he also shook his head and said: “I did the same things, but now that I’m out, I don’t understand it anymore.”

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