Syrian Cinema in the Service of the Dictator, Concealing His Crimes
“Each of the well-known cinema directors was obliged to produce two movies a year about the agricultural development under the Soviet Union. The movie must show the farmers as happy and joyous people.” It is from here that the Stalinist plan, which Stalin called the “Dreadful List,” started, resorting to a famous director, none but Sergei Eisenstein, who presented movies with the theme of post-revolution Bolshevik Russia.
Of this duration’s best movies are Strike, 1924, and the Battleship Potemkin, 1925, which addressed the rebellion of the “Potemkin” battleship’s sailors against their officers in 1905. The movie was chosen as the best in the history of world cinema, according to the critics’ vote for the year of 1957; it is also considered one of the most effective promotional movies in the history of cinema at the world’s level.
The Russian cinema, under the Stalinist reign, was hegemonized by realistic socialism, imposed on all arts, including cinema, as to advance this mindset. This control appeared clearly after the death of Stalin, for the Russian cinema started to demand liberty and then spread over international festivals, according to which cinematic innovative figures started to appear, detached from the grip of the regime.
Cinema at the Services of Dictatorships
This policy infected the friend sates of the Soviet Union, including Syria, before which the Iraqi regime, produced the Qadsia movie as a part of its war with Iran. Iran, similarly, exploited its cinema directors, who often produced movies criticizing the Iranian society and regime, whether implicitly or explicitly with a tone hinting at reform.
The regime, since it came into power in Syria, was able to detect that cinema and art in general do play a key role in “propaganda,” or the promotion for dictatorships, either in a direct manner by advancing its ideas, attitudes or point of views, or in an indirect manner by producing movies, utilizing creative citizens, who are not necessarily to its side, while allowing them a space, through which it can exploit their arrival at international awards and platforms, as to give a different image of itself, one of civilization and diversity, which it considers a part of the process of polishing the way it already looks.
The Syrian director, Thayer Mousa, explains to Enab Baladi how the Syrian Public Institute of Cinema’s production of movies has increased in the past a few years.
He says: “The past a few years witnessed an increase in the number of the movies produced by the Institute, in support of the regime’s propaganda, especially since that the Institute posses all that is needed to produce a narrative film with the least cost possible, unlike drama.”
Following the breakout of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, the regime was oblivious of the role of art in general and cinema in particular, for its sole focus was directed at oppressing the demonstrations and its military campaigns, especially with the expansion of the geographical area being controlled by the opposition factions.
“In the beginning, the regime’s interest concentrated on drama, as to present its perspective and to employ its narrative in series that serve its politics. However, these series were refused by the Arab channels, which refrained from broadcasting works that address the Syrian affairs, let them be from the regime’s part or from the opposition’s, which triggered the regime to make a shift to cinema that will help it have access to the international public opinion and a larger audience via the festivals presenting these movies,” the director added.
The movies directed by Joud Said, for example, attracted a massive audience at festivals, in addition to wining several awards because he utilized the destroyed sites in Syria, which formed a suitable environment for shooting his movies, as they appear to be having a high artistic value, according to Mousa, who refutes this evaluation, considering that the audience was affected by the scenes of bombardment more than the story or the director’s efforts, as for Joud, in his movies, including The Rian of Homs, bestows the regime a testimony of innocence before all its victims.
A Cinematic Conflict at the Festival’s Battle Ring
In the past a few years, a number of anti-regime Syrian directors tried to channel their voice to the world through making movies that serve the humanitarian cause by shedding a light on the shelling, fear, detention and forced disappearance they are suffering, in addition to the dilemma of the refugees at the camps, as well as the death boats heading towards the dream of a safe life in Europe.
These movies varied, some are narrative, others are documentaries, and some received international awards, such as the White Helmets, the 2017 Oscar Winner for Documentary (Short Subject).
The Last Men in Aleppo has also won several international awards, of which is the American “Sundance” Film Festival’s award.
As for the narrative movies, The Guest: Aleppo-Istanbul, by the Jordanian actress Saba Mubarak, is yet receiving international awards for addressing the Syrian refugees cause, including children.
The last participation of movies presenting the Syrian tragedy was The Day I Lost My Shadow, by Soudade Kaadan, actress Sawsan Arsheed and the actor Samer Ismail, which won the 2018 “Vince” Festival award. The movie is a Syrian, Lebanese, French Qatari coproduction. Shot at the Syrian-Lebanese borders in 2017, the movie narrates hypothetical events in the winter of 2012 about Sanaa, Sawsan Arsheed, who is living in the hells of a war capable of stealing the viewers’ imagination.
The movie presents the story of “Sanaa,” whose dreams are all stolen to be left with a single dream summarized by her desire to get a gas cylinder for cooking to make some food for her son. She takes a one day leave from her job to start a journey in search for a gas cylinder, to suddenly find herself at the outskirts of the besieged city of “Duma,” where she discovers that people are losing their shadows.
The Regime Responds with a Movie Machine
The clear presence of the opposition’s cinema triggered the regime to think of enhancing its global presence to deliver its narrative, especially since that most of its movies were narrative, depending on what authors write, even if they were showing something different from the truth.
This was clear during the award ceremony of the Alexandria Mediterranean Countries Film Festival, which ended on October 8, for The Passenger: Damascus-Aleppo by director Basil Alkhatib, actor Duraid Lahham and the two actresses Salma Almasri and Kinda Hanna, has won a number of the festival’s awards.
The ” Public Institute of Cinema” produced The Passenger: Damascus-Aleppo under its undeclared project of presenting the Syrian regime’s narrative and its justifications for all the destruction, death and disappearance that befell Syria, through the presence of terrorists and a universal conspiracy, for the movie tells the story of a father, Duraid Lahham, who decides to visit his daughter, living in Aleppo, and his journey to Aleppo on a bus, where he joins other actors.
The journey shows scenes of the destruction of the city of Aleppo, where the actor states that the opposition is responsible for this, while never hinting at the intense aerial shelling that targeted the city for years.
Another movie that was awarded during the festival’s ceremony was “Rose,” which is cuts and recollection of scenes where the character “Rose” appears, done by actress Suzan Najm Aldeen in the Syrian series Shawoq, produced by the “Emar Al Sham” company and directed by Rasha Sharbatgy. The actress was awarded the best actress for her part in the film.
According to Najm Aldeen’s statement to the governmental “Tishreen” newspaper, last year, the film is a combination of the scenes which hold the dramatic line of the character “Rose” in the Syrian series Shawoq, which addresses the cause of women kidnapped by the “Islamic State” while they are shown as representatives of the revolution.
Though the Syrian director Seif Al-Sheikh Najib won the best short narrative film, under the title Tent 56, the Syrian media neglected its presence prior to the festival and the award it received after the festival.
On her “Facebook” page, the Syrian actress Safa Sultan expressed her regret for the “clouding” of the Tent 56 movie that the Syrian official media is practicing and wrote: “Though they Syrian media unfortunately clouded the news, our joy and success are never a secret. Wish us the best and congratulation for all the participants.”
She added that Tent 56 is the only Syrian short narrative film to participate in the Alexandria Festival, directed by Seif Al-Sheikh Najib, written by Sundus Barhoum, while the acting was done by Safa Sultan and a number of Syrian actors, who “volunteered” to act for free, as to show the pain of the people living in refugee camps, as she put it.
The Crime being Cinematically Obliterated
The director Joud Said’s efforts under the regime’s cinema played a role in delivering one narrative, with many dimensions, exploiting the natural sites and the destroyed environment, convenient for the stories of his movies, speaking of war.
On November 3, Said will participate in the Carthage Film Festival with War’s Passengers movie, the latest of his works, featuring Ayman Zeidan, Lujain Ismail and Lina Hawarna. The movie is produced by the Lebanese’s “al-Ameer” company.
In his new movie, Said did not change the dramatic line which Basil Alkhatib started with his Passenger: Damascus-Aleppo movie, from presenting travelling to Aleppo as a risky journey to exploiting the city’s destruction once more, through the story of “Bahaa” (Ayman Zeidan), an about to resign employee at the Electricity Department in Aleppo governorate, who is planning to get the end of service compensation and return to his far away rural town despite the burning war and though Aleppo’s battle is yet at its peak.
Najdat Anzour, however, presented the story of a foreign journalist in his movie titled Revolution Man. The journalist comes to Syria, smuggled, in search for a story to achieve fame, but he gets shocked with what he sees in Syria, which according to the director’s perspective contrasts to what is being reported by foreign media outlets.
Then, the journalist gets involved with the opposition factions to reach stories for publishing; he is also a witness to a chemical massacre and part of it, which the movie presents as being staged by the “opposition factions.”
The Revolution Man, produced by the Public Institute of Cinema and written by Hassan M Yousef, stresses the regime’s alleged innocence in relation to using chemical weapons and provides evidence to these allegations, following a number of works done by Najdat Anzour about Syria, where he always features the opposition as “terrorists.”
According to the director Thayer Mousa, “the films of the opposition directors, though little in number, are distinct for their documentary pattern, for they have featured personalities known to people, who appeared with their real identities and real stories without any dramatic or promotional additions. So, these movies stood out as realistic and honest.”
“Khalid” one of these movies’ characters, a rescuer at the Civil Defense, was killed on duty while saving children in the Last Men in Aleppo by director Feras Fayyad, which has been considered one of the fifth top documentaries and was, thus, nominated for an Oscar.