Friday, October 31, 2008

Ahmed and the Return of the Arab Phoenix

Ahmed and the Return of the Arab Phoenix
Directed by Guiseppe Bucciarelli, 2007, 23 minutes

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Film still from Ahdem and the Return of the Arab Phoenix
Syria is known more for contentious politics than conservation efforts, but in Ahmed and the Return of the Arab Phoenix, director Giuseppe Bucciarelli uncovers a small but powerful story of environmental success in the country’s desert—the return of the bald ibis, a bird previously thought extinct in Syria.

The short film follows a sheepherder named Ahmed in his efforts to restore the ibis’s habitat in Al Badia, home of Ahmed’s desert people, the Bedouins. And the stars of the film are not the typical National Geographic, khaki-wearing experts flown in from halfway around the world, but a modest, ad-hoc group of scientists, hunters-turned-environmentalists, and Bedouins.

Though the film doesn’t elaborate much on Bedouin history, Ahmed’s interest in desert conservation is much more than symbolic. Bedouins have struggled for centuries to defend their traditional pastoral livelihood in Syria, which is now threatened by environmental degradation. In Bedouin lore, the ibis represents wisdom, and to Ahmed their return is a sign that his people’s way of life can be restored.

The film exposes a side of Syria not often portrayed by the mainstream media. The haunting music and shots of the streets, ancient ruins, and wildlife depict the country as a mythical place where history exists alongside the present and remind us of Syria’s ancient past as a cradle of civilization. (Al Badia is near the Euphrates River on the Iraq border.) Bucciarelli sometimes romanticizes Syrian culture, but without overdoing it.

Ahmed and his partners face many challenges, including lack of funding, limited public awareness, and the elusiveness of the birds.

The film is a humanizing portrayal of one person’s struggle in a tough environment, but Ahmed’s ultimate hopes are nearly universal. “For my children,” he says, “I would like a better life, more education, [and] keeping their traditional Bedouin culture with some love for nature and wildlife.”