The Echoing Silence of “Tadmor”

Naomi Pham
Still from the film, "Tadmor," courtesy of Icarus Films.

Directed by Monika Borgmann and Lokman Slim
Icarus Films, 2016
Ghosts of the past come in many forms. For some, they exist as memories, recollections of humiliation or pain. For others, they live in the dead. A telling confrontation with all of these manifestations, Monika Borgmann and Lokman Slim’s “Tadmor” speaks volumes on the lasting impacts of systematic torture and degradation. The film focuses on men haunted by their time as prisoners in the notorious Tadmor (known    in English as Palmyra) under the Assad regime. Revisiting their experiences of incarceration, these men transform an abandoned school outside of Beirut into the very prison that inflicted so much trauma and fear.
Rather than reopen past wounds, the award-winning docufilm offers resolution for many of its actors, who play both the victims and their victimizers on screen. A form of therapy in itself, “Tadmor” not only shares the experiences of former-detainees, but also provides a platform where they can express feelings bottled up for years. 
The documentary begins with a group of unnamed men drilling into a wall, tearing down what appears to be an abandoned building. Then, each focused on their particular tasks, they build the walls anew. Despite reconstructing the terrifying cells of Tadmor, they maintain a light atmosphere. One can easily see the combination of excitement and anxiety inherent in their actions, especially when cutting out foam-like sticks – to be used in the film as weapons – and then using them to playfully hit each other as they prepare for filming. This light-hearted attitude looms over them like a delicate glass dome, at times seeming ready to crack underneath the tense atmosphere and blaring silences. However, it never truly vanishes, and, if not apparent in their demeanors, proves evident in the masterful cinematography. In the one-on-one interviews marking new segments of the documentary, each man sits on a chair in the center of the room, surrounded by light. This, in contrast with the dark, perpetually shrouded reenactment scenes, presents an uplifting if not hopeful tone, metaphorically lifting the weight off the actors’ shoulders, quite literally shining a light on their pasts.
Other scenes accompanying these underlying messages of hope can be difficult to witness. Tadmor, after all, bears a reputation as one of the world’s most cruel prisons. One scene reveals the prisoners cowering together, arms linked as another actor, in the role of a prison guard, barks orders and beats them. The descriptions of torture methods and weapons – from materials taken from tanks to the “reception tire,” used to give 250 “welcome” lashes (as opposed to the standard 50 common in other prisons) – serve as only a fraction of the trauma, not taking into account the psychological torment the men faced day after day. The men describe mealtime experiences, stories that prove hard to digest. One man describes how guards urinated on the chicken and rice meal only served on the special Baath Day of March 8, and how he decided to stay silent so the others could still enjoy their food. “Tadmor,” for this man, represents an opportunity to free himself from the past, as he relates his vow to tell the truth about that incident should he survive the prison.
Borgmann and Slim not only provide a creative outlet for victims to tackle the ghosts of their pasts, but also shine a much-needed spotlight on a dark history that should not be overlooked. The poignant silences left an unnerving heaviness in my heart and mind, leaving me with only the sound of my thoughts, unable to tear my eyes away. Inevitably, the film, unable to cover each of the actors’ experiences, leaves many stories untold – but the pain and trauma echoing in the silence cannot be unheard.
This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 73, 2017.
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