In 1949, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared that to write poetry after Auschwitz was “barbaric.” The question underpinning his statement remains ever relevant: In the face of wars, genocides and other atrocities, does art-making serve any purpose? David Henry Gerson’s documentary, “The Story Won’t Die,” answers with a resounding yes. The Syrian refugee artists profiled in the film — men and women who’ve suffered one of the most brutal displacements of our time — make a case not just for art’s survival but for art as a means of survival.
Weaving together interviews with a number of Syrian singers, rappers, dancers and visual artists now based in Europe, Gerson probes the ways in which artistic expression emerges both because and in spite of repression. For some, like the post-rock musician Anas Maghrebi, who brought his three drum kits on the boat across the Atlantic, their vocation is a spiritual life jacket of sorts. For others, like the photographer Omar Imam, the experience of migration has provided a furious impetus: His “Syrialism” series attempts to redefine stereotypical depictions of refugees.
Threading the needle between individual tales and a broader historical portrait is as much a challenge for Gerson as it is for his subjects. While the artists are eager to represent their experiences in their work, they want to be seen as more than “a laboratory rat for people to show documentaries about,” says Bahila Hijazi, a member of an all-female Syrian rock band. If Gerson’s brisk supercut style can feel frustratingly cursory at times, he chooses wisely to concede the stage to the artists — rousing scenes from concerts and recitals are the film’s highlights — rather than turn them into data points for an exhaustive account of the refugee crisis.
The Story Won’t Die
Not rated. In Arabic and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 23 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Amazon, Vudu and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.