For the fourth annual Arab Women in the Arts showcase, we’ve chosen to celebrate and explore the work of visionary Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan. Our opening night film is her 2022 feature Nezouh, playing in New York City on May 2 at the Nitehawk Cinema – Williamsburg, and in San Francisco on May 9 at the Roxie Theater. As of 2024, she has written and directed two feature films and several shorts, and is the recipient of several festival recognitions and awards.

Photograph of filmmaker Soudade Kaadan similing and looking out of frame.

Born in France and raised in her home country, Soudade Kaadan attended the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Syria, where she studied theater criticism—there were no cinema institutes at the time. For her master’s, she received a scholarship to Saint Joseph University in Beirut, where she officially pivoted to filmmaking. Upon graduation, however, getting funds for her work was an uphill battle; Syria’s National Film Organization, the one and only film fund in the country, would not take chances on female filmmakers with no existing ties to the industry, so Kaadan had to begin her path independently. 

Her first directorial effort was in 2008 with the experimental documentary short, Two Cities and a Prison. The film follows an interactive theater troupe who perform at a youth detention center in Damascus. We watch in closeups as the young prisoners participate in the acting project, seeing how creative exploration allows them to escape their harsh reality. Kaadan went on to develop two television documentaries for Al Jazeera: Looking for Pink (2009) and Damascus Roof and Tales of Paradise (2010), the latter being the last film she made in her home city, screened just a month before the uprisings. 

Film still from the movie Two Cities and a Prison by Soudade Kaadan. Five young boys smile towards something off frame while siting atop an orange painted wooden structure.

Film still from Two Cities and a Prison

Soudade Kaadan and her sisters fled Syria during the war, eventually landing in London, where she is now based. In an interview with Jadaliyya in 2020, she discussed how the war affected her work: “When the war started in 2011, I was shocked and no longer able to make movies. I felt I had no right to make a film about all this pain. The pain of reality was stronger than my ability to express it in an image or through a film to be screened in festivals. This prompted me to start making fiction films.” Her next short, Besieged Bread (2016), indeed served as her first official venture into fictional filmmaking, made under her and her sister’s newly established production company, KAF Production. 

Obscure was Kaadan’s next film, a documentary feature filmed in stages over six years and released in 2017. It follows Ahmad, a seven-year-old Syrian boy in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, who has fallen silent. While his teachers initially write it off, we learn that he is actually severely traumatized, refusing to talk in an attempt to forget his Syrianness. Obscure is notably different from other Syrian documentaries of the time, both in focus and tone, winning the MAD Solutions award at the Venice Film Festival Final Cut Workshop. 

Film still from the movie The Day I Lost My Shadow by Soudade Kaadan. A man and a woman dressed in winter jackets, scarves and sweaters walk through tall, dry grass.

Film still from The Day I Lost My Shadow

The following year, Soudade Kaadan at last released her first full length narrative feature, The Day I Lost My Shadow. It premiered at the 75th Venice Film Festival in the Horizons section, winning the Luigi De Laurentis Award for a Debut Film—marking the start of a streak of major festival success for the director. It tells the powerful story of Sana, a Syrian mother who ventures into a war zone, looking for a canister to prepare a meal for her son. Hiding from government soldiers on an olive grove, Sana notices that her companions have lost their shadows; a metaphor for their trauma caused by the brutality of war. Signatures of Kaadan’s work are on display here: observational cinema, with touches of magical realism. With this premise she explores the effects of the civil war on a people, how beliefs are different neighbor to neighbor, from generation to generation, how the relationship with your loved ones and your own identity becomes flipped on its head. 

Just months after winning the Debut Film award at Venice, Kaadan’s next narrative short film Aziza won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. A black comedy shot in just three days, it follows husband Ayman, a Syrian refugee in Beirut, trying to teach his wife, Aziza, how to drive. Magical realism is again present, as well as another signature of Kaadan’s work: the complex female protagonist. The filmmaker’s target audience is Arab women, and she recognizes the power of female writers and directors bringing their own stories to life. Speaking to The Italian Reve in 2022, she stated: “We are a traditional society, but the war changed us a little bit because men went to fight, so who was there left to protect the house, make decisions, protect the family and go out for food, work and money? Women!” 

Film still from the movie Aziza by Soudade Kaadan. A man and a women sit in the front seats of a red car facing one another.

Film still from Aziza

Soudade Kaadan’s most ambitious effort yet, the feature length drama Nezouh, was nine years in the making. She began writing the script in 2013 but put it off due to lack of funds; filming took place in Gaziantep, Turkey, where she recreated scenes of a war-torn Damascus. Finally in 2022 the film played in the Horizons Extra category at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. The film starts when a missile destroys the ceiling of fourteen year old Zeina’s bedroom; when the violence escalates, her parents quarrel over whether or not they should leave: her mother wants them to flee to safety, her father refuses to become a refugee. Meanwhile, Zeina befriends her neighbor, Amer, and over the course of the story, learns to spread her own wings. 

The premise came from a photo Kaadan saw of a bombed house in Damascus that brought in the starlight. “I wanted to talk about how this would change the interior and dynamic of the house, the masculine and the feminine,” she explained to Screen Daily. “At the time, everyone was talking about the bombing and the fighting, but I wanted to talk about this internal thing.” Established Syrian actors Samer al-Masri and Kinda Alloush played parents to first time actress Hala Zein, who was picked out from a restaurant in Turkey; as with all her actors in all her films, Kaadan encouraged the ensemble to improvise. 

Film still from the movie Nezouh by Soudade Kaadan. A young boy lays on a concrete rooftop next to a large hole showing a young girl laying on a bed below.

Film still from Nezouh

The title literally translates to “the displacement of souls, waters and people.” Once again speaking to Screen Daily, she said “I wanted to show that this human movement is also about changing life dynamics, changing as a human being…I wanted to show the range of emotion you can feel with this family, that it looks like any family.” On display is her hallmark magical realism and surrealist imagery: the sky is shown to be a body of water that Zeina and her mother throw pebbles into, representing a freedom and reality they don’t have, as there is no sea in Damascus. Kaadan’s background in theater adds to the storytelling, as the house becomes like a set or a prop, an extension of the father’s self. 

Through her stylistic work, pressing subject matter and pure talent, Soudade Kaadan has proven herself as a leading figure in Syrian cinema, and will no doubt continue her rising climb as a voice in women’s and international cinema. It is for that reason we are honored to be highlighting her fantastic work for this year’s Arab Women’s in the Arts showcase.

Tickets for the NYC and SF screenings of Nezouh are available now; The Day I Lost My Shadow and Aziza will also be available as part of the showcase, streaming online from May 3 to May 12, screening in NYC on Sunday, May 5 at the BK Art Haus – Williamsburg and in San Francisco on Thursday, May 2 at the Alliance Française de San Francisco. Soudade Kaadan has stated that she hopes her next project will venture away from the Syrian conflict, so as to not box herself into one subject—whatever she has in store, we will be keeping an eye out for. Until then, please join us this May to celebrate her work at the showcase: to get your passes, tickets or to learn more about the showcase, please visit arabfilm.us/women.