Documenting Life As It Is (profile of Syrian filmmaker Ammar al-Beik)

Art should do more than imitate life. It should capture and document it, says Syrian filmmaker Ammar al-Beik whose unconventional films and documentaries have won international praise.

Ammar al-Beik / Photo by Manaf Hassan

Ammar al-Beik / Photo by Manaf Hassan

Syrian filmmaker Ammar al-Beik’s early start in the industry was less than successful. As a 12-year-old, Beik auditioned for a role in the movie Dreams of the City by noted Syrian director Mohammad Malas. He failed to make the cut. Some 19 years later, however, in an ironic twist, Malas would hire Beik as his assistant director for the film Bab al-Makam, released with the English title, Passion, in 2005, giving Beik his big break.

Beik has charted an unconventional approach to filmmaking and it shows in his work. The 36-year-old avoids working with large film production companies which he believes restrict creativity by imposing a rigid framework of rules and conditions. Instead, he prefers to just grab the camera and shoot, letting his spontaneity guide him. He has been particularly influenced by French director Robert Bresson’s book, Notes on the Cinematographer. Beik directs and produces all of his own work and insists on employing amateur actors. “Famous actors are spoiled by the movie industry,” he said. “Cinematography requires amateur models that are pure and intact, ones that spontaneously give themselves rather than actors who perfectly perform a role.”

Still from Ammar al-Beik´s film Jerusalem HD

Still from Ammar al-Beik´s film Jerusalem HD

Showing me a bulging book filled with olive tree branches and stones collected from Jerusalem, Nazareth, Acre, Gaza, Haifa and Nablus, Beik explained that he asks Palestinian directors to bring a piece of their homeland to the international film festivals he attends. His documentary film Samia tells the moving story of Samia al-Halaby, a 72-year-old Palestinian painter who returns to Ramallah after spending years in exile. Most of the film’s footage was shot by Halaby herself as she carefully selects a stone from the neighbourhood she used to live in to bring back to Beik. “The video was so spontaneous and touching that it had to be turned into a movie,” Beik said. “Samia reflects the destiny and lost dreams of many Palestinians who were forced to flee their country 60 years ago.”

Beik believes the role of art is to represent life as it is. Consequently, he uses it in his documentary style films to portray the everyday problems of ordinary people in society and politics. “If I avoid breaking taboos or crossing red lines in my work, creating art only for art’s sake, the result will be fake because it doesn’t reflect my inner self,” he said.

Still from Ammar al-Beik´s film They Were Here

Still from Ammar al-Beik´s film They Were Here

I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Grave, produced and directed by Beik and formerly exiled Syrian director Hala Alabdallah in 2006, is his most famous film to date. The 105-minute long film, part documentary and part fable, examines the fate of three Syrian women who face social and political oppression, prison and exile to France. Interviews with the three women alternate with various footage: the desolate island of Arwad; paintings by Alabdallah’s husband Youssef Abdelke; and his emotional return to Syria to see his mother after 24 years of living in France. The film pays a highly emotional tribute to the rejuvenating power of poetry and beauty in general. During the movie, the viewer sees Beik cleaning the camera lens, Alabdallah directing the actors, and a little boy re-filming his scenes, without much success. These small details bring out humour in the film, without detracting from the moving story line. Shot in black and white, the film has won a number of awards, including the Documentary Prize at the 2006 Venice International Film Festival.

At present, Beik is working on a film which focuses on the bloodshed and instability in Baghdad, Jerusalem and Beirut. “The Palestinian-Israeli crisis and the chaos in Iraq and Lebanon affect every detail of our lives in Syria,” he said. “As a Syrian, they are present in my life and therefore in my art.”

He has also been setting the wheels in motion for a movie which will feature film directors from all over the world in front of the camera, including Manoel de Oliveira, Jia Zhangke and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Despite his success, Beik maintains he never believed his childhood dreams would become a reality. “When I was a little boy peeking at the director from backstage, I couldn’t imagine I might get into the heart of filmmaking,” he said.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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