The opposition’s documentaries and the regime’s narrative films… Thus Syrian cinema conveys the war
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Mohammed Homs / Yamen Moghrabi / Habeh Shehatah
The interrelationship between war, propaganda and cinema has always been quite intriguing since the beginning of the First World War. By 1914, the movie industry had not found its way to a huge audience. However, the Germans made use of this industry to influence the public and promote for their position. The Soviet camps and other European countries adopted the same strategy.
The movie industry has received widespread interest in America and Europe. The Soviet Union started making propaganda to promote for its communist ideology, while its enemy the US has been showing off the force of its army and soldiers.
Eight decades after the end of the Second World War, cinema is still used to serve the same purpose, namely propaganda, dissemination and introduction of the opinions of newsmakers. In the Syrian war, however, there have been two models of cinema-specific to each party involved in the conflict since its beginning, almost nine years ago.
The Syrian regime made use of its media and cultural means to work on further establishing its story, which has remained the same since the Syrian revolution in 2011. On the other hand, opposition filmmaking has been limited to the production of documentaries, except for some minor attempts to tackle another aspect of cinema, mainly narrative films.
Nowadays, documentary or narrative films document events, but this does not ensure their immortality or becoming obsolete over time. Some of these films are engraved in memory and others get trashed slowly, depending on the story they told, the dramatic plot or the extent to which it is realistic.
The Opposition… Verité and Direct rather than Narrative films
The films produced by pro-opposition Syrian movie directors have achieved wide international reach. Documentary films have been nominated for major international awards, such as Sundance, the Oscars, Golden Globe and other prestigious artistic awards. Narrative films, on the other hand, went completely absent from the minds and cameras of the directors who opted for the Syrian revolution as an idea, unlike the institutions of the Syrian regime.
Verité, Direct and Narrative films
Syrian film director Thayer Moussa identified three types of cinema that emerge during civil wars and in countries witnessing conflicts:
It is almost like a reportage, a film that speaks and conveys the facts as they are. It tends to communicate information directly, and to trigger sympathy, to which the director is trying to draw attention. This type is purely informative and media-related aiming to convey the reality and facts.
The film moves from being only documentary to artistic through which the issue is tackled, but with a technical dimension and the unique vision of the director’s point of view. In this case, cinema moves from documentation to creative vision.
Springs from a narrative scenario and do not necessarily tackle real stories, although the scenario may be based on realistic events, purely imaginary or a specific event.
“The Last Men in Aleppo” by Syrian director Firas Fayyad, “Of Fathers and Sons” by Talal Derki, “Still Recording” by Saeed al-Batal and “Taste of Cement” by Ziad Kalthoum, are the most prominent documentaries.
During an interview with Enab Baladi, Syrian movie director Thayer Moussa identified three types of cinema emerging during civil wars and conflicts countries, and described them as progressive sections. The first type is direct cinema, which is almost like a reportage; a film that speaks and conveys the facts as they are. It tends to communicate information directly, and to trigger sympathy, to which the director is trying to draw attention. This type is purely informative and media-related aiming to convey the reality and facts.
According to the Syrian director, the second type is cinema verité, as those directed by Syrian directors. The film moves from being only documentary to artistic through which the issue is tackled, but with a technical dimension and the unique vision of the director’s point of view. In this case, cinema moves from documentation to creative vision.
The third type is identified as the narrative cinema, which springs from a narrative scenario and do not necessarily tackle real stories, although the scenario may be based on realistic events, purely imaginary or a specific event (the Syrian revolution is an example).
Opposition filmmakers and directors opted for the second type Moussa has explained. The time required to come up with the idea of the film and write the scenario script is not necessary for such type, for the director needs to visit the scene and film there. Cinema verité approaches and tackles the core of the event, while the narrative moves away from the venue to gain calm. This is what Moussa described as artistic retreat (stepping back and writing). The production of documentary films is synchronized with the event while narrative slightly moves away.
Moussa pointed out that the Syrian territories are absent in the film industry, such as the areas destroyed by the regime, although there is no need to make films in those areas. However, this does not eliminate the need for the main site of the event, which is the Syrian territory.
He said that this factor hugely contributed to the production of the Syrian regime, because these places are important and authentic. These places are real; thus, the director here does not need to introduce any elements of cinematography.
“The cost is another factor that urged the opposition directors to resort to producing documentaries, because the narrative is much more expensive,” Moussa added, clarifying that the Syrian regime has all the means, such as the sponsor and producer, which opposition directors lack.
In spite of the lack of artistic production in the opposition cinema, this is attributed to its inability to consolidate itself into a single media or cultural institution, according to the Syrian actor and artist Nawar Bulbul. The opposition remained restricted to the affiliations and ignored some events and highlighted others, following different point of views. Therefore, the voices were uneven and everyone worked in line with his own means.
Bulbul perceives this as a positive aspect, as diversity of orientations is a form of democracy. In this context, he compares the film of Syrian director Talal Derki to “Of Fathers and Sons” and the American movie entitled “A Private War” which tells the story of American journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed in Homs.
Bulbul considers that the difference between the two films is the perspective of dealing with the events and the positive or negative generalization. Marie Colvin’s film, which was produced by Universal Studios, dealt with what was going on in Syria and talked about the reality of what was happening in the popular revolution, contrary to the narrow side that the Syrian director Talal Derki talked about in his film.
Bulbul reminded of the American film, which showed a scene of Baba Amr in the last scene, which showed total destruction, depicting Syria as a destroyed country because it demanded freedom, “while Derki generalized the theory of terrorism, al-Qaeda and Takfirists in all of Idlib Governorate and therefore in all the Syrian opposition areas.”
Everlasting films, while others become obsolete over time
In the short term, documentaries are standing out by proving the facts, making them a reference for future generations of films. However, some of them will become obsolete over time because they are linked to a certain stage, according to Syrian director Thayer Moussa.
Moussa hopes to continue to reach the second level of films (documentaries) so they would be a documentary reference, pointing out that they must be archived. The Syrian regime will eventually fall; hence, cinematic archiving is important to preserve and record the events of the current stage in a cinematic manner. Nevertheless, the third level (narrative films) is more durable than the two previous types, according to Moussa.
He believes that the films about the Syrian revolution will be produced over the next 50 years. He explained that “the occurring disaster and the terrorism the Syrian regime has committed will constitute a rich material, unfortunately, because of the large number of crimes, and will also form a humanitarian material with high level of drama.” He asserted that this event or the disaster will be a source of inspiration for directors over time.
Moussa values the importance of all types of films that are being produced in the present.
The Syrian actor and artist Nawar Bulbul agrees with Moussa that all kinds of arts that film the Syrian revolution would either be everlasting or become obsolete over time. “Only the valuable materials will be everlasting and week materials will become obsolete,” as he put it.
Bulbul believes that cinema and the arts cannot be blamed in general, considering the current events in the country are much bigger than the cinema and cannot be shortened or used in a film, series or narrative films. He pointed out that these events will gradually be documented little by little.
Narrative films under preparation
The Syrian revolution will be a sea of ideas, themes and scenarios for the films to be created in the future, according to Moussa, who expressed his optimism about the films to be produced over the days.
He insisted that Syrian directors have ideas to move a step forward towards narrative films, adding that he had seen some of this type of scripts with his fellow filmmakers.
The director expressed his hope to produce one or more narrative films about the Syrian situation during the next two years. He explained that he is currently working on a narrative film scenario that is not directly related to the political and media situation. It would rather be purely human against the backdrop of Syrian events, and would be based on people who have been abandoned by the regime.
Has Syrian cinema been influential in the recounting of what has been happening in Syria?
Results of an opinion poll Enab Baladi published on its Facebook page showed that a majority of respondents do not believe that Syrian cinema has influenced the recounting of the occurring events in Syria.
About 400 users responded the question that Enab Baladi asked: “Has the Syrian cinema been influential in the recounting of what has been happening in Syria?”
82 percent of the respondents said no. “The Syrian media reflects only the point of view of the authority that is showing to the outside world what it cares about,” said Saad al-Din Khayatah, commenting on the poll.
In contrast, 18 percent of the respondents supported the opinion that Syrian cinema has been influential in the recounting of what has been going on.
The Syrian regime invested in cinema
Because cinema has always been an important instrument for the regimes in the ideologization of society and marketing of viewpoints, the Syrian regime has sought to tighten its control over it from an early stage, limiting it to the National Film Organization (NFO), and later using it as a weapon to support its version of “fighting terrorism.”
This step is highlighted by several films produced in previous years, including “The Rain of Homs” by Joud Said, “Decaying and Vanishing” by Najdat Anzour, and other films.
The regime has not only produced films that serve its “dictatorship,” but also tightened its grip on Syrian filmmakers, both before and after the revolution.
The cinema production circle in Syria has revolved around the production of films that attack the opposition, the demonstrators and the regional countries that have strained relations with the regime. Among these films is “King of the Sands,” directed by Najdat Ismail Anzour, which discusses the history of the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Al Saud, from his time in Kuwait until his return to Najd and Hijaz, and the establishment of the Saudi state, over 50 years of his life.
Syrian director Dellair Youssef said in an interview with Enab Baladi that Syria did not have a cinema industry before the revolution, and so the regime had not previously invested in it for its benefits, unlike after the revolution, as it has turned it into a propaganda machine to serve its point of view.
Between 2011 and 2018 the National Film Organization has produced nearly 30 long films, apart from the short films, according to NFO’s official website.
Dellair added that the regime has sought through these films to prove its point of view by using directors who tried to polish its image, even if they were shown in the notorious festivals or in two cinema rooms inside Syria. These films have thus become part of its propaganda machine, like Syrian TV reports and other media outlets, in a country that does not have a film industry in the first place. The director stressed that there is eventually no “neutral” cinema.
Director Dellair considered that the film’s foundation and beauty lies in its struggle. It is therefore difficult to classify films produced by the regime in the last few years as part of the cinema industry. They are rather closer to no more than propaganda films, because cinema is a message and a valuable asset to any society. When the cinema loses this value, the film turns to a just bad report on a bad TV channel, as he put it.
The Syria regime’s film production has started to rely on new film directors, which in the past had been limited to specific film directors that dominated the direction of these films, most notably Abdellatif Abdelhamid, Yazan Anzour, Mohammed Abdulaziz and Nidal Doji.
These films have not been directed to the Syrians, nor have they been produced to change the internal public opinion regarding what has been happening in the Syrian scene, as they have been directed to the western world first and to the Arab world second. They have been very sympathetic to the Syrian revolution in its beginnings. Therefore, the regime had to invest its filmmaking machine to create a different public opinion.
The regime also used the cinema to portray itself to the West in particular as the protector of minorities in Syria. The regime gave a picture of its openness and interest in and support to the arts, through the National Film Organization (NFO), which is presented to the world as the producer of artistic works that articulate a further degree of freedom compared to other Syrian dramas.
Directors who oppose the regime are terrorists
The Syrian regime sought to stand against Syrian filmmakers, exploiting the state of weakness that the Syrian film sector suffered from the 1970s to the gradual decrease of production until 2011. Thus, the regime tried to make its own cinematic productions, which has made it difficult for Syrian directors to make movies, especially with the deterioration of the film industry.
Some directors insisted on making their own films, which led them to be engaged in a public war with the Syrian regime. Hence, one of the prominent directors who opposed al-Assad regime was Omar Amiralay, with most of his films banned from theatres and prevented from leaving Syria in 2006. After being summoned to investigation, the Syrian regime asked the Tunisian government, through the Syrian embassy in Tunis, to prevent the screening of Amiralay’s film, “Flood in Baath Country,” at the Carthage Film Festival. The incident was followed by the issuance of a collective statement on behalf of a group of Arab filmmakers, participating in the festival, confirming their withdrawal from the event in case Amiralay’s work is banned, which draw significant media attention to the movie.
Syrian director Dellair Youssef stated that the regime was harassing Syrian filmmakers, by limiting movies’ production to the NFO; in addition to the absence of a high quality cinematic productions. Nonetheless, filmmakers were being arrested, and they preferred to leave the country. Thus, al-Assad has not only oppressed ordinary people, but also persecuted the community of filmmakers.
The Syrian regime also arrested Syrian director Mohammad Malas in 2014 and released him later, in addition to waging a war against Syrian directors through censorship, and then by banning their films from movie theatres, in case they managed to produce these movies.
Al-Assad regime’s repression of filmmakers was not limited to censorship or arrest, as the bombing of the regime forces on Homs led to the death of director Bassel Shehadeh and director Tamer al-Awam.
Movies made by the allies
Like warring parties in Syria, the countries supporting the regime and the opposition were engaged in the movies production industry. Both Russia and Turkey tried to express and defend their views through cinema.
The most prominent efforts consecrated by the Russian government in the field of cinema in Syria was the announcement of Special Representative of the Russian President for International Cultural Cooperation, Mikhail Shvydkoy, at the end of 2017, his country’s intention to produce works of art that tell the story of the Syrian war.
During the same period, director of the NFO, Mourad Shahin, announced a project of a Russian-Syrian cultural week dedicated to the projection of Russian films, draw on the experiences of the movies’ directors and revive the Damascus International Film Festival, which has been suspended since 2013.
Two years ago, Syrian actress Sulaf Fawakherji signed a contract for the production of the first Syrian-Russian feature film owned by Fawakherji’s production company, Shaghaf, and the Russian company Proline Film, which will present the story of ISIS invasion of Palmyra. The movie’s projection is scheduled for the end of this year.
The Iranian cinema won its share through an agreement with the NFO earlier this year.
Last year, Iran presented a film called “Damascus Time” which was touching to the extent of making Qasem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander in Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, cry according to the company’s production. The movie tells the story of the heroic Iranian pilots who faced the fighters of ISIS.
On the other hand, the level of coordination between Syria and Turkey, one of the most prominent supporters of the Syrian opposition, as far as the film industry is concerned has decreased, compared to the increasing pace of cooperation between Russia and the Syrian regime.
Turkey has produced a number of films and dramas that portrayed the war in Syria from a particular point of view, starting from Daraa and the movie “Kardesim Icin… Der’a” (For my brother … Daraa), or “Can Feda” (the soul sacrifice), which told the story of the conflict against ISIS and Kurds, who are considered as terrorist groups by the Turkish authorities, in the northern countryside of Aleppo.
A historical look at Syrian cinema… Significant points
In 1928, the first Syrian film, entitled “The Innocent Accused“ directed by Ayoub Badri and produced by Haramoun Production, was screened, followed by “Under the Sky of Damascus” in 1932, preceded by the projection of other movies since 1908 in Aleppo, and later in other Syrian cities.
In addition, Syria’s national events were cinematically recorded several times. However, these productions were encountered by the French censorship, which removed many scenes, in addition to hindering the production of some of the films made to support the Palestinian revolution against the British, such as the movie entitled “Call of Duty” until World War II, by blocking access to equipment.
Production continued after the end of the war, bringing movies like “Light and Darkness,” directed by Nazih Shahbandar, to life, in addition to documentaries about Syrian cities, Damascus and Latakia, which were also produced in 1950.
After the rise of stars like Duraid Lahham and Nihad Quali in television series, these famous actors started acting in several movies from the 1960s to the 1980s, as well as a number of commercial and Arab films.
While private film production companies were concerned with quick profit by producing films that did not portray the Syrian citizens’ concerns and social problems, there emerged a new generation of Syrian filmmakers who studied outside Syria and returned, such as Mohammad Malas, Haitham Hakki, Nabil Maleh, Omar Amiralay and other directors who have made movies that achieved great success in Arab and international festivals.
The Syrian cinema also witnessed the contribution of Arab directors, through film director Tewfik Saleh. He is one of the most famous Egyptian directors who did not receive the fame he deserves. He produced “The Dupes,” based on the “Men in the Sun” novel by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani and “Al Yazerli” which was directed by Qais al-Zubaidi and adapted from “On the Sacks” novel by Syrian novelist Hanna Mina.
The “Dreams of the City” film by Mohammad Malas is one of the most prominent films, which was among the best 100 Arabic films, along with 10 other Syrian films, including “Stars in Broad Daylight” by Ossama Mohammed, and “A flood in Baath Country” and “Everyday Life in a Syrian village” by Omar Amiralay, and other films are on the list of the Dubai International Film Festival 2013.
In the meantime, recent years have seen some special productions, such as “Selena” directed by Hatem Ali, starring Myriam Fares, and produced by Nader al-Atassi in 2009. It is a musical adapted from “Hala and the King” play by the Rahbani Brothers; and “The Long Night” film also directed by Hatem Ali, 2009; “Half MG of Nicotine” film in 2007 and “Damascus with my Love” in 2010 directed by Mohamad Abdul Aziz, in addition to the film productions of the General Organization for Cinema since 2011 until today.