Written In honor of the late director John Homeh, 1952-2020
Released in 1991, John Homeh’s film Wardeh Deesheh is widely known as the first and most successful Assyrian feature length film. Nearly 30 years after the film’s release, the story feels like opening a time capsule of outdated special effects and shoulder pads while simultaneously watching something fresh and relevant. A testament to Homeh’s penchant for provocative themes. In 90 minutes, Homeh masterfully confronts the tension Assyrians face living in diaspora while not shying away from the realities of rape, domestic violence, substance abuse and infidelity.
Wardeh Deesheh’s overarching theme is portrayed through the love triangle between Nineb (George Homeh) Nineveh (Juliana Jendo) and Nina (also Juliana Jendo). By double casting Jendo as both Nineveh and Nina, Homeh effectively captures the binary of east & west that every Assyrian in diaspora must reconcile. Nineb’s love for Nineveh (made even more obvious in her name) represents the Assyrian’s love for his homeland, and his love for Nina represents the love for life in diaspora. Nineb spends most of the film ignoring Nineveh’s pleas while remaining captivated by Nina, ultimately torn between them and unsatisfied.
In interviews, Homeh revealed his vision for Nina was to represent specifically the diaspora communities that work towards the Assyrian cause. The climax of the film when Nina is raped symbolizes the rape and assault of the diaspora existence. Homeh critiques the stigma that rape places on the survivors of sexual assault, and his decision to highlight this often taboo subject is a breathe of fresh air in the canon of contemporary Assyrian arts. The symbolism of Nina’s rape makes the lyrics to the film’s title song, Wardeh Deesheh, that much more meaningful to the film’s message.
Nineb’s love for Nina, his love for the west and the opportunities it affords him, provides him with an inkling of hope as he resettles his life in Australia. With her rape and the demise of their relationship, and symbolically the demise of a future for the Assyrian cause in the west, any last hope for Nineb is crushed. It’s only then at the penultimate point of his story that he realizes there is no future for him away from Nineveh.
A natural entertainer, Juliana Jendo’s successful transition to the screen to portray both Nina and Nineveh is immediately felt in her opening monologue. Nina embodies the best of the west. She is a modern woman; empowered, sexy, and styled in the iconic 90s fashion that a young Jendo gladly serves at every turn. Nineveh embodies the allure of the East. She is a woman of principle; modest, consistent, family-oriented, and Nineb’s first true love since childhood. Where Nina starts sentences with “hey” and “oh my god” Nineveh writes letters in perfect Assyrian hand-writing.
After hitting rock bottom in an overdose of alcohol and new found freedom, Nineb offers a prayer asking for a new life and a second chance. The final shot of the film shows him on a flight to Nineveh.
Homeh’s key message is arguably just as cynical and controversial now as it was then; but as is the case with the best of films, Homeh doesn’t simply prescribe a simple solution to the Assyrian dilemma, but rather opens the door to an honest conversation on the subjects most frequently swept under the rug in Assyrian culture.
The final scene leaves the audience in Nineb’s shoes, reflecting on their own futures. Was Nineb right in his decision to leave Nina? Will Nineveh be alive and willing to forgive Nineb when he arrives? Where does Nineb belong? Where do we all belong? According to Homeh, there’s only one way to find out – and it involves a flight to Nineveh.
It is no surprise that upon the film’s original release, it captivated a worldwide audience. The mass immigration of Assyrians out of their homelands in the 1980’s fueled by the Islamic Revolution, Baathist Regime, and the Iran-Iraq War, resulted in hundreds of thousands of Assyrians finding refuge in new adopted countries. Much like Nineb, many of these immigrants struggled with depression, culture shock, economic disruption and homesickness. Three decades later, and the children of these immigrants are rediscovering their parents stories and relating to their search for identity and belonging through the film. Homeh’s brilliance, and the reason for Wardeh Deesheh’s lasting relevance, lies in the uncertainty of its ending. Much like Nineb’s fate, ours too remains unresolved.
The opening shots of the film are of a wedding celebration in a traditional Assyrian village. Grandmothers stir giant pots of stew to feed guests as crowds dance around the bride wearing traditional Jooleh d’Khomala. The camera pans away from the celebration to a more solemn conversation, where two lovers are saying their goodbyes. Nineb (played by George Homeh) and Nineveh (played by Juliana Jendo) are tearfully departing as Nineb plans to immigrate to Australia. Nineveh warns him that there will come a day when he will regret leaving her, his brother, and their homeland in one last attempt to make him stay. When she realizes his mind has been made up, she imparts one last piece of foreshadowing advice to Nineb: beware of the new found freedoms you will experience and protect your heart against the “sickness of the west”. An emotional monologue that is somewhat lost in translation.
The remainder of the story takes place in Sydney, Australia. Michael Jackson is playing in the background, men are serving women tea, and Nineb begins his new life in a strange land. Nineb lives with his brother Sargon, his brother’s wife Suzy and their daughter Cathy. We are quickly introduced to the cast as Homeh then slowly reveals to us the interconnectedness of the characters. Like many immigrants, Nineb tackles depression and sadness resettling in a new country. His previous academic success means little without english credentials and he is weary of beginning to build his life up again from scratch. His stress is reduced by support from his community of émigrés, and his plan to overcome his language barrier leads him to meet Nina (also played by Juliana Jendo).
Predictably, boy meets girl, and before we know it Nineb and Nineveh are serenading each other on a boat in Sydney harbor. One of the many delights of the movie is the songs woven seamlessly throughout. The most memorable and lyrically mesmerizing being Nineb and Nineveh’s duet professing their new found love in “Ya Atoraya, Ya Atoureta”.
While Nineveh’s increasingly urgent letters to Nineb go unanswered, Nina brings Nineb home to meet her father David. One of the antagonists of the plot, David is a greedy, lustful, and prejudice man. Nineb, being both broke and a nokhraya (foreigner/not from her father’s tribe), is quickly rejected. Before he storms out, Nineb boldly tells David that nokhrayeh don’t pose a threat to Assyrians, but rather Assyrians like him who highlight differences and drive wedges between tribes and sects are far more dangerous.
The predictability of Nineb and Nina’s relationship is mitigated by the web of familial ties between the two. Nineb’s villainous sister in law Suzy does business with Nina’s Father (David) and employs her sister in law (Asmar). Asmar and her husband Enkidu (Nina’s brother) are a young, happy go lucky, working class couple that provide much needed comedic relief throughout.
After introducing Nineb to her father goes horribly wrong, Nina avoids him by staying in her room. David’s greed comes at the ultimate price when he brings a young sleazy business partner over for drinks. The two get increasingly drunk as they mix crude descriptions of women with business talk. The partner reveals his interest in Nina to her father, who quickly approves in order to smooth over a million dollar business venture. When he drunkenly stumbles up to Nina’s room to fetch her only to find her already asleep, he returns to his drink which has been spiked with drugs. With David passed out, the drunken businessman finds his way to Nina’s room, presumably taking her virginity and raping her. Throughout this seen John Homeh cuts back and forth between Suzy offering to buy Nineb off to stay away from Nina. As David’s other business partner, Suzy had promised fending off Nineb to secure her own deal. When Nineb sees through her plan, she matter of factly reminds him that everything is a bazaar these days.
Nineb returns to Nina, only to find her in a devastated state. Nina breaks things off with Nineb without telling him why, like most victims of sexual violence she is ashamed and fears the negative stigma attached to rape. Nina sings of her trauma in the film’s title song “Wardeh Deesheh”. Nina’s tearful ballad of heartache is cut with scenes of Nineb drowning his sorrows with alcohol. As they both face their individual miseries, their families face misery of their own. Enkidu confronts Nina’s rapist in a violent exchange that leaves him dead, and Sargon & Suzy’s household which often grapples with domestic violence, have their own fight which culminates in their daughter Cathy being struck with a fatal blow.
Unaware of all of this, Nineb wakes up from his bender in the bed of his one night stand. As the Australian girl comes out of the shower to kiss him goodbye, Nineb recoils and is reminded of Nineveh’s last words before his move, “protect yourself against the sickness of the west”. He leaves to join his family only to find them in mourning over his niece. As he becomes overwhelmed with sadness with the news, Nina returns to him for the first time since they ended things. She delivers a letter from Nineveh, and implores Nineb to return to her who is his true love. Nineb admits that he fooled himself thinking he could find love elsewhere. In her final letter, Nineveh has traded her longing romantic tone of the past for one of disappointment. She rebukes Nineb for not answering her when she had fallen ill, and informs him that his brother Ashour has passed away of the same sickness. She fails to understand how Nineb could let his own brother die without coming to his side. Nina reminds Nineb of his lasting love for Nineveh, and tells him that her heart is full of love and mercy ready to forgive him should he let her. In the final scene, Nineb silently prays at Cathy’s funeral. Eyes looking to the heavens, Nineb asks to be given a new life, and a second chance with Nineveh. The final shot shows Nineb flying to return to Nineveh.
You can watch Wardeh Deesheh in its entirety here.