Bitter Bread finishes with an exclamation point on a silent cry for help, as a weeping Syrian child is forced to nearly cradle his family’s minuscule open furnace in a failed attempt to battle the raw elements of the Lebanon border. As loud of a visual as this may seem, the tears and moans are tepid and restrained, artfully presented as horrifyingly quiet as possible in both style and audio. Although director Abbas Fahdel does not loudly pontificate on his solutions to the Syrian refugee crisis in his documentary, his matter-of-fact cataloging of a Syrian slum’s living conditions provides a brief, but poignant morality with which to view any political issue: They are people too.
In this community, the most rudimentary necessities required to stay alive are perpetually hanging by a thread. Before the weather turns, the water is often browned, tents are structurally flaccid, and food is bought on credit as meager as a $6 a day salary (before expenses) in the fields can cultivate. After rain or snow, floods routinely destroy all property per household even when the roofs don’t cave in from the weight, meaning people rarely seem to have belongings of their own, but they can still speak. There is still subtly to their words as, for example, only the word “tent” is used to describe shelter, never “home.” The migrant’s tone when surveying their situation can’t be described as blunt, descriptive, accepting, or even defeated. When hearing about a neighboring family’s flood, the removed reaction of a group of farmers is indecipherable as they continue to calmly go about their work without a change in pace to show their respects. It, simply, is speaking.
On the surface, Bitter Bread seems to be presented in a similar manner to their plain responses, as it frequently holds its steady-handed handheld eye at its subjects and lets them explain their situations. Yet, its sympathetic personality comes through form. Instead of letting the refugees speak for themselves, the volume of rain loudly tapping roofs and cars passing by drowns out their voices bringing out something words can’t so easily convey: it’s possible to hear them, but their voices are meager. A sad discussion of the accessibility of tents may be contrasted with the neighborhood’s beautiful landscape serving as a transition, or more devastatingly, the scarce moment of quiet dignity will be contrasted with gallons of unusable run-off water pouring away into nothingness.
Most moments of warmth come towards the opening, as Fadhal opens with children being given the certainly life-saving gift of dry clothes by “Santa Claus” and the generous shop owners who allow their clients to not pay their debts briefly talk. “Anything happening in your love life?” “No, just my humanitarian life.” By the conclusion, the flashes of children earnestly giggling, posing, and playing for the camera are scarce, while more stories of laborers, indebted, and other familiar faces appear more. As it offers few new situations and dilemmas to ruminate on in its final twenty-five minutes, its structurally repetitive nature eventually becomes an asset in its final moments. In a way, the struggles are the same across these family units.
Fahdel boldly decides to let the conditions speak instead of referencing geopolitical motivations, daunting war statistics, or placing blame on a boogeyman. The clearest opinion is delivered by an exhausted laborer, who references the United States and Israel by name: “May God damn those countries that hurt us.” But the film does not give his musings much time. Despite their condition, the blame is not what appears on their minds most often. Most likely, that honor goes to the wellbeing of their children, whom the film is dedicated to.
Bitter Bread may be a clear display of humanism and hushed sympathy, but it hardly has anything to look forward to. A harsh yet bitingly realist worldview. Maybe the conflict will end, maybe they will return to Syria, but it seems that they’re destined to live in rubble at this rate. It sees the world as being far away, with few goals or aspirations mentioned by adults. If there is a respite it comes from the children who despite their circumstances still harbor dreams of a better tomorrow. Hopefully, they’re right.
Bitter Bread does not pretend it has a solution for the complex Syrian refugee crisis, instead, it offers a harrowing look at the people caught within it