Filming qanats


Filming and living in the Syrian village of Little Waterfall                                                                 

From 1997 until the beginning of 2002 I lived in Syria. There I worked as a development worker,first on the subject of biodiversity but later I realized that shortage of water was maybe an even more urgent problem in the Middle-East. Without water, no life, no plants! After two years, in 1999 I switched my focus on the waterproblems. Based at the International center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, I conducted an applied research survey on the use of ancient watertunnels in Syria. Having been trained as anthropological filmmaker at Leiden University, I always carry my little digital camera with me whenever I go into the field.

It was during one of these trips that our research assistant Pierre showed us the small village of Little Waterfall. The current inhabitants are descendants from one man that arrived over hundred years ago from Hauran, southern Syria. Since marriages between cousins are preferred, the village consists basically of one big family.

After the first visit, Robert, my husband who is hydrogeologist, and me spent a lot of our time out in Little Waterfall. We developed a friendly relationship with the villagers and in the weekends we liked to go out of the busy city of Aleppo and enjoy the company and hospitality of the families in the village. Since nobody in the village speaks English, we enjoyed very much to practise and improve our Arabic.

Mohammed Khayr checking out the tunnel                  The village from above                                                 Our trophy, a Byzantine oillamp !


The project of cleaning the water tunnel of Little Waterfall was developed whenMohammed Khayr, main character of the film, pointed out to me that he and hisfamily wanted to clean out the tunnel. But they did not have the financialmeans. His father was the one that first showed us the blocked airshafts.Afterwards we made a trans-sect through the tunnel and saw the problems thatwere evident.

After several meetings with the village elders and preparing the plan for cleaning, we translated their workplan in language that was suitable for international donors. And together with ICARDA, we managed to raise enough funds to actually help Mohammed Khayr andhis family to start up the renovation. When it was secured, the villagers appointed Mohammed Khayr to be the team leader.

When we started to do the development work in the village of Little Waterfall, I lived in the village for several months.Robert had work in other sites but regularly visited the village. Besides thefact that it was convenient for filming unexpected events, it was the best wayto be able to develop a trustingrelationship between me and the community. Until today there is a housein the village that is called “Bayt Joshka” which means the “house of Joshka”.

The house itself was made of mudbrick and located next to a sheep bin, I had sometimes nice company ofsheepnoses peeking through the small airholes. The house was an old house, inLittle Waterfall when someone leaves or dies, people do not re-use the housebut leave it empty until the winds and rains take the mud and the house iseroded.

Living in this villagewithout electricity, running water or sanitation facilities it meant going backto basics. My house was located on the slopes of the hills and a bit far thewater outlet of the tunnel. This meant that every morning and evening I had togo out with my metal bucket to fetch water. Especially the first days this washilarious because one way or another my neck is not used to carrying largeamounts of water on my head. Gradually, the women of the village taught me howto carry it but I never managed to fill the bucket up completely. So instead ofonce I always had to walk twice.

Another issue was going tothe toilet. The villagers usually walk up in the valley or women go and sitwith the sheep in their bin. Sometimes, old houses are designated areas. So oneof my first tasks when I arrived was building a toilet for myself in an abandonedmudbrick house. 

Having solved the basics, itwas a wonderful experience to  have been able to share the daily lives of these families for so long. We usuallyshared morning and evening meals with neighbours and I learned a lot on how tomilk sheep, prepare butter, make bread in a traditional oven and simply sitwith the women and talk about life. Basically, the villagers became sort offamily and we will hopefully keep in touch for many more years.

The making of Tunnel Vision took several years from the cleaning in the summer of 2000, through to thenational survey of these tunnels in Syria during 2001-2002, until the beginningof 2003. Many of the footage that is not used in the film is used forscientific documentation. The broadcast version on BBC World can also bereceived in Syria. Mohammed Khayr and his family already have seen this version with afriend in a village nearby who has a television set with a huge satellite dish next to his mudbrick house !