With Daniel Gorman
Syrian-made films are not something new that has just arrived with the uprising. Documentary filmmaking, with its focus on giving an honest portrayal of a situation, has played an important and hotly contested role in Syria for many years. Prior to 2011, Syrian filmmakers were required to seek the permission of the National Film Organisation to make their films and, as such, walked the tightrope of regime whim, never sure if their film would be permitted or banned. The situation changed completely in 2011. Today those making films face imprisonment, torture or death. Bassel Shehadeh, a talented young filmmaker and a personal friend, was killed by a regime shell on 28 May 2012 as he organised filmmaking workshops in Homs. Many others have faced similar fates. And yet, in spite of the huge dangers, there continues to be an outpouring of creative work from Syria, with many choosing to utilise the medium of documentary film.
One of the earliest critical documentaries in Syria was Khutwa, Khutwa (Step by Step), by Ousama Mohammed, filmed in 1976–77. It was Mohammed’s graduation film for the Geramasov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, which he attended on a Syrian-state funded scholarship. The film charts the connection between patriarchy and the militarisation of Syrian society, and the effects of both on social relationships. In a song sung by a village elder, what begins like traditional lyrics about the countryside are revealed as total allegiance to Hafez al-Assad. Mohammed develops this theme by following young boys and children in the countryside, charting their transformation from young citizens to soldiers, some of whom are willing to kill for the regime. As a young conscript in the navy proclaims to his friend, while they look over their village from a hill: ‘If my brother insulted the party, insulted the leadership… I’d kill him, really I would.’ Khutwa, Khutwa is a biting critique of the hold of both militarisation and the rule of Assad on everyday village life.
The following films are discussed in this essay:
Khutwa, Khutwa, director, Ousama Mohammed, 1976-77.
Nujum al-Nahar, Director, Ousama Mohammed, 1988.
Film – Muhawalah ‘An Sadd al-Furat, director, Omar Amiralay, 1970.
Al-Hayat al Yowmiyyah fi Qaraya Suriyya, director, Omar Amiralay, 1974.
Tufan fi Bilad al-Ba‘th, director, Omar Amiralay, 2003.
Zabad, director, Reem Ali, 2006.
Hajar al-Aswad, director Nidal al-Dibs, 2006.
Damascus Roof and Tales of Paradise, director Soudade Kadaan, 2010.
MiG, director Thaer al-Sahli, 2013.
Return to Homs, director Talal Derki, 2013. A trailer can be viewed at:
Of Gods and Dogs, director, The Abounaddara Collective, 2013. The Sundance Film Festival prize ceremony can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p61qP2jdFOg
Art of Surviving, director Azza Hamwi, 2013. It can be seen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28d1-AgGOW0