Saleh Malas | Hiba Shehada | Yamen Maghrebi
The smoke plume and dust were reflecting the red twilight colors that adorned the skyline of the quiet town. Yet, missiles continue to hit neighborhoods, getting used to the smell of death. It was a cinematic scene, published before the jury for the “Oscar” award in the United States, describing Eastern Ghouta, in which beauty was in tune with the ugliness of pain.
Two films were nominated for the “Oscar” award. The first is “The Cave,” which has described the suffering of people under siege in Eastern Ghouta. And the second is “For Sama,” which shed light on five years of suffering that Aleppo experienced during the conflict. None of the two films won the Oscar. Still, they have enjoyed considerable support and fame that made their cause resonate in the United Nations Security Council, the White House, and the British Buckingham Palace.
These are not the only films that depicted the suffering and the dreams of civilians to the global audience, since 2011, as tens of Syrian films have won praise, honor, and sympathy, and they have been released in various international movie houses.
And year after year, Syria was omnipresent in international festivals through films that carried the spirit of the Syrian revolution, telling the stories of its people. And this year, for the first time, two Syrian films reached the list of movies nominated for the most critical cinematic prize in the world.
What is the secret behind the transition of Syrian films from total absence to global competition? How the “biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the twenty-first century” (according to the United Nations definition of the war in Syria)” has contributed to the promotion of cinema?
Enab Baladi held interviews with directors and human rights activists to discuss the mutual impact between the humanitarian issue, the revolution, and the film industry in Syria and its implications for the future of Syrian films.
We see the light… Syrian cinema from “strangulation” to the world
Filmmaking in Syria started at a slow pace. It was not comparable to international and Arab cinema. However, as soon as it had the opportunity to see the light, its content and implementation were appreciated and respected outside the borders of the Syrian regime and its institutions.
The film industry started in Syria after the fourth decade from the appearance of the international cinema. It was launched with the production of the movie “The Innocent Defendant” in 1928. After that, no video was released before the year 1947. The movie “Light of Darkness” was released, after 18 years of recording sound in American films, according to a study published in 2006 by the “Danish Film Foundation.”
Syrian cinema and production companies chose their productions and topics freely. But, they collided with the hard political reality. After that, in 1963, the Syrian Ministry of Culture established the “General Organization for Cinema,” and it started to monopolize the production and distribution of films and control its content.
Despite the censorship and curtailment of films, they were funded by the institution and were able to reach international festivals, such as “Cannes,” “Venice,” “Berlin,” and “Oscar.” The Syrian cinema was based on “paradoxes,” and was suffering from state domination while carrying out political and social criticism that drew international attention, according to the Danish Film Foundation study.
Nevertheless, Syrian films are rarely displayed in cinemas in Syria, and they ended in the archives of the General Institute of Film-Making, prone to damage and loss, according to the German Film Foundation “Arsenal,” in 2011.
In 2011, the peaceful demonstrations represented a political, social, and intellectual revolution and a symbol of the freedom that Syrians seized despite the suppression of the Syrian regime. Since the first days of the revolution, the camera accompanied the “citizens who were like journalists.” They gave the film industry a new breath.
A “revolutionary” mission … or ascension towards fame
Dozens of Syrian films saw the light after 2011, inspired by the horrors of war and human content that affected the global audiences. They conveyed the features of life and death from the most dangerous inhabited areas on earth. In return, they have won appreciation and honor after participation in film festivals around the world.
Those films “made the voice of the Syrians heard throughout the world,” according to Syrian director Dellair Youssef in his interview to Enab Baladi, referring to the “necessity and duty” of the Syrian cinema to tell what happened and what is happening during the war “so that history books remember Syria, and we don’t live the same tragedies in the future.”
As for the movie awards, they represent a legitimate ambition for filmmakers. But, according to Youssef, they must not be a goal itself, as fixing such purpose serves a “wrong understanding of cinema.” Awards do not make successful films, and filmmakers should not forget the “spirit of cinema.”
Youssef considers that the success of the Syrian films delivers a message about “the high value of the Syrian filmmakers,” pointing out that if the Syrian condition had been different previously, the film production would have varied “remarkably” in the number and the quality of outputs.
Narration by adopting art
The Syrian cinematography has reached advanced levels making it worthy of global honor, which was a way to “confirm the revolutionary Syrian story,” as Syrian director Ghatfan Ghannoum said, in his interview to Enab Baladi. In this context, he referred to the Syrian regime’s approach as it has been using media, press and cinematic platforms to “straddle” what is happening in Syria during the past years.
Ghannoum added that telling the story of Syria to the world will have an essential role in drawing the final scene of the story of all Syrians, as the Syrian regime used cinema also to convey its messages.
The regime provided its support for dozens of films that promoted its version, such as combating “terrorism,” including “conspiracy” that the “innocent” Syrian government was a victim of, despite the violations and crimes documented against it by local and international human rights organizations.
While the opposition parties’ films relied on transmitting the facts of the Syrian war in a documentary manner, the movie produced by the government authorities took advantage of the rockets and missiles left by the Syrian regime. It used the ruins and destruction in cities that were empty as locations for making films. These productions were also honored at Arab festivals, such as “Rain of Homs” by Joud Saeed, in 2017.
Enab Baladi, in a previous investigation, highlighted the differences in the film industry between the production of directors who work for the regime and those who are against it, under the title “Documentations of the opposing parties and the version of the regime … This is how Syrian cinema conveys war.”
The Syrian regime is increasingly relying on cinematography to tell its story and erase the facts of the war, according to the Syrian director Hisham al-Zaouqi, who noted the importance of Syrian pro-revolutionary cinematographers who tell their story in return.
Al-Zaouqi said to Enab Baladi that the fact that Syrian films receive international recognition and honor raises hope among young filmmakers and represents an impetus for them to work diligently, but this should not be at the expense of the sincerity of the real story.
A role in documentation and another for advocacy
Will the cinematic production of the opposition parties serve their purpose?
Mobile phone cameras and professional cameras have accompanied the popular movement in Syria since its inception and transferred videos of demonstrations, bullets, arrests, bombings, and even torture and executions.
This made the Syrian case, according to the description of jurists, one of the most widely documented and most substantiated cases, but not all of these videos are still available.
In 2017, YouTube, the most popular free video platform around the world, deleted nearly half a million recorded clips documenting war crimes in Syria, on the pretext of “violating the site’s policy and broadcasting violent content,” according to its statement.
In September 2019, The “Syrian Archive” platform, which is responsible for visual materials documentation of the Syrian revolution, announced in a post published on its Facebook page that the YouTube site administration removed the media channels of “Ugarit” and “Sham” media agencies. This led to the loss of 300,000 recorded videos.
The platform indicated that it had previously preserved all the recorded clips that were present in the channels of the two agencies before their deletion, and invited content makers who produce and possess visual material related to Syria, to send their channels to archive them.
The deletion of those visual documents of Syria hid “the history of this terrible war,” said the director of Air Wars human rights organization, Chris Woods, to The New York Times in 2017.
Documentaries contribute to preserving that date, according to their creators. Even if their goal is not purely legal aiming at the documentation of a specific violation, they also play a role in the process of advocating the Syrian issue, according to Bassam al-Ahmad, executive director of the Syrians for Truth and Justice organization.
This advocacy helps human rights organizations open investigations into cases of human rights violations that necessarily affect public opinion, al-Ahmad said to Enab Baladi.
Some of the Syrian film scenes include the targeting of medical centers or residential neighborhoods, which is classified as a war crime. According to al-Ahmad, this qualifies those films to be supportive evidence of the condemnation of the perpetrators of these crimes and violations.
Human rights organizations sometimes benefit from documentaries by filling the gaps in the investigations of international committees or organizations about a particular incident, clarified al-Ahmad, who cited an example of using “The Cave” documentary as supporting evidence in documenting the attack on Eastern Ghouta with chemical weapons.
Some scenes of the documentary, which revolves around “The Cave” Hospital located under Eastern Ghouta, showed the efforts of the hospital director, Dr. Amani Bellor, as she is treating patients whose faces showed symptoms of inhaling Sarin gas during the massacre of August 21, 2013, which caused the killing of over 1,400 civilians, the majority of whom were children.
Contrary to al-Ahmad’s opinion, Syrian cinema has not played a sufficient role in documenting the course of the war in Syria, according to an opinion poll Enab Baladi conducted via its Facebook page, in which 836 users participated. Eighty-five percent of voters disagreed with the idea that Syrian films have contributed to the role of documentation.
User Mohamed Yahya Khaledou commented that what happened and still happening in Syria “cannot be covered by any television or cinematic work.” User Iman Shami wrote that Syrian cinema “contributed to distorting what is going on.”
Documentaries of the Syrian cinema had previously faced criticism, the most notable of which was the film “Of Fathers and Sons” by Syrian director Talal Derki, released in 2018, which was nominated for an Oscar award, for its “selectivity” in conveying the lives of jihadi fighters in Idlib countryside without displaying the broader image of the Syrian war, which is a cinematically “allowed“ yet “revolutionarily” rejected option, according to Syrian observers and activists.
Syrian cinema in the international context
Continuity of influence correlated with “faith.”
During the nine years of the war, Syria witnessed tragedies, which thousands of humanitarian reports tried to document and describe. The headlines of thousands of media outlets and newspapers circulated the crisis; however, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, did not choose media or human rights reports to quote at the beginning of his speech before the UN Security Council, on February 19, on the escalating humanitarian crisis in Idlib, but instead cited events from The Cave film.
Lowcock delivered Dr. Amani Bellour’s voice to the representatives of the international community, as she talks about the suffering of the children who have been displaced from Ghouta to Idlib a year ago, and those who are now displaced in the open and cold weather, suffering fear and lack of security and recommended watching the movie for those who did not see it.
What the news failed to make, cinema can make?
The role of films in transmitting what reports and news failed is to depict stands out, according to the media and documentary programs director Souad Qatanani.
Qatanani told Enab Baladi: “We may hear in the news that 12 civilians have died as a result of a Russian bombing … The news ends here, but if we follow the families of the victims and the amount of pain and grief, the dreams these victims left behind… How will the rest of the family carry on with their lives? All this will not be told in breaking news.”
The human scope of documentaries has a significant effect concerning its ability to reach and attract the attention of different social groups and celebrities, which are not familiar with the Syrian crisis.
In December 2019, British actress Emilia Clarke, famous for the role of Daenerys Targaryen in the series Game Of Thrones, posted a picture of her, on Instagram, carrying the cover of For Sama documentary, and other photos accompanied by director Waad al-Khatib, and wrote: “This film is about life, death and the fragile space between humanity and the struggle for survival.”
This photo refocused the attention of Clarke’s followers, 27 million people from all over the world, on the Syrian crisis. Thus, dozens of people commented on the post to inquire about the film’s central theme, as they wanted to know more about what is happening in Syria.
While For Sama received its 53rd award at the British BAFTA party on February 2, the wife of British Prince William, Kate Middleton, spoke emotionally about the impact of the movie that she saw, and said that the director Waad al-Khatib is “an inspiration for every woman.” Middleton stated that she was deeply affected by the child Sama, who is about the same as her son, Prince Louis.
Although For Sama did not win an Oscar, at the ceremony held on February 10, its director’s dress was the evening highlight as it carried an embroidered message saying: “We dared to dream and we will not regret the dignity.”
This initiative received the attention of foreign media and resonated with the daughter of US President and his adviser, Ivanka Trump, who met Waad al-Khatib two days after the ceremony, with the presence of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.
Waad spoke about her experience in Aleppo and the situation in Idlib. She has shown both Trump and Graham images of thousands of displaced Syrians in severe conditions, due to random shelling of the Syrian regime and its allies.
“Studying pain” is the role of artistic work, which deals with the case in its context that extends from the moment of bombing and destruction to the moment of asylum. As the journalist Souad Qatanani said, noting that documenting the Syrian story requires all energies and means, from the media and art, “to raise attention to this just cause for which Syrians have paid and are still paying for it.”
The future of cinema depends on “believing.”
The award of the Syrian documentary “The Return to Homs,” directed by Talal Derki, at the Sundance Festival, has opened, in early 2014, the way for successive successes and honors for young directors’ experiences in filmmaking about the transformations of their revolution.
“Little Gandhi,” 2016, was directed by Syrian director Sam Kadi, and was the first Syrian film presented for nomination for the “Oscar” award, before the movie “Last Men in Aleppo,” 2017, by the director Firas Fayyad, was already able to enter the list of nominations.
“Of Fathers and Sons,” “The Cave,” and “For Sama” are films that were nominated for the Oscar list during 2019 and 2020. While no Syrian film has won that award yet, the frequent arrival of Syrian films increased optimism about the future, even if the difficulties are still expanding.
Director Dellair Youssef considers that the most prominent problems that Syrian filmmakers suffer from are the lack of the public, as the situation of the Syrian diaspora, with more than 6.7 million Syrians distributed in 127 countries, according to UNHCR data, makes reaching audience “difficult.”
Despite the dozens of grants offered annually by organizations, institutions, and festivals supporting cinematic arts to develop films and produce them with specific criteria, these opportunities represent a “small cake that hundreds of people compete for,” said director Hisham al-Zaouqi.
According to Al-Zaouqi, the biggest and most significant obstacle in filmmaking is “the belief that it’s making it easy.” While everyone has the right to tell his story from his perspective, it is only the filmmaker who can bring magic and charm to his work.
Despite the “massive production boom” in independent cinema, according to the director Ghatfan Ghannoum, which helped in the development of photography techniques and the spread of cinematic education, the pressures on the film industry around the world are still “severe.”
According to Ghannoum, the most prominent of these pressures is the lack of government funding, the dominance of major production companies and the dependence of filmmakers on financiers, transport, and travel, adding that changing this reality is related to the degree of believing of the Syrian filmmakers in what they offer.
After the recent successes of Syrian filmmakers, directors denied that Syrians could get more support for them and their films, considering that obtaining funding for the production of films is a personal matter, which is not directly related to any other successes.
For her part, Suad Qatanani, journalist and documentary program maker, considered that “it is fine” that filmmakers accept foreign companies’ support for any artwork, only if this support does not affect the humanitarian and moral message of the work, and also this cooperation should not be conditional on specific words requested by the funder.
According to Qatanani, the Syrian pain is no longer just Syrian; it is instead a humanity pain, adding that “there is no harm in us mobilizing all human potential for this cause.”
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