Review: Heartbreaking documentary ‘Simple as Water’ traces plight of Syrian refugees

A woman in a headscarf stands among tents holding a phone
Yasmin, a young mother, in the documentary “Simple as Water.”

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The daily existence of a quartet of displaced Syrian families, forced apart by the ravages of war, is tenderly profiled in Megan Mylan’s “Simple as Water,” an achingly poignant testament to the unwavering strength of parental and filial bonds.

Spanning five countries, the stirringly shot documentary delves beyond the bombing, examining those lives in limbo as they await notification of refugee status or reunification news that will allow them to start anew as a family unit.


While Yasmin cares for her four young children in the shadow of a noisy Athens industrial port, her husband, Safwan, is living in a cramped apartment in snowy Germany with other Syrian fathers, holding out hope that the long bureaucratic process will ultimately reunite them.

Over in Turkey, Samra, whose absent husband was arrested for working with the former Syrian regime, is unable to support her five children and is forced to put them in an orphanage, despite the quiet protests of her sensitive, eldest son, 12-year-old Fayez, pleading that “home is better for my soul.”

In Philadelphia, attentive Omar, raising his high school-age brother, Abdulrahman, who lost a leg to fighter jets, is contemplating a move to Canada after learning his application for U.S. asylum has been denied because he was considered “engaged in terrorist activity” as a fighter with the Free Syrian Army.

And, back home in Syria, Diaa keeps searching for signs that her POW son might still be alive, obsessively scanning social media reports as she cares for his mentally handicapped brother while conceding there’s “nothing left in Syria except death and devastation.”

Mylan, an American filmmaker who won an Oscar for her 2008 short, “Smile Pinki,” goes in tight on her subjects’ sympathetic faces, creating a viewing experience that is at once intimate and expansive and certain to touch the heart— when not breaking it.

‘Simple as Water’

In Arabic and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica