Up Close and Personal (Syria’s film industry)

Syrian documentary filmmakers are zooming in on the personal in their films.

Stills from “I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Grave”

Three of the world’s leading documentary filmmakers, America’s Don Alan Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus and Chile’s Patricio Guzman, are coming to Damascus this month. The filmmakers’ visit to Dox Box, one of the few and most popular documentary film festivals in the Arab world, marks a shift in the country’s documentary film scene.

Syria’s documentary scene remains small by any measure – some years less than 10 films are made – but in recent years several documentaries have garnered much critical acclaim on the international film scene. Unique among these is Omar Amiralay’s Flood, a film which examines Arab socialism by looking at the impact of the Assad Dam on a local village and which won the Grand Prix award at the Biennale of Cinémas Arabes in Paris in 2004, and I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Grave, by Ammar al-Beik and formerly exiled Syrian director Hala al-Abdallah, a film that examines the fate of three Syrian women who face social and political oppression, prison and exile in France. The film took the top prize for documentary films at the prestigious Venice International Film Festival in 2006.

A new generation of Syrian filmmakers with a more open perspective is emerging. Orwa Nyrabia, co-founder of ProAction Film Company and the Dox Box Documentary Film Festival, said the trend was not simply a local phenomenon, but global.

“The series of wars in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, as well as the clash of civilisations we are suffering from today have pushed the world’s intellectuals to question where this is all going and created a movement to raise social and political awareness through art,” Nyrabia said. “After years of isolation and what could be best described as Syrian agoraphobia, the post-Generation X of Syrians has finally opened up to the world and joined this global movement towards documentaries.”

Making it personal

More specific to the country, there has been a marked shift in the subjects local documentary filmmakers tackle. While documentaries in Syria, like countries of the Soviet-era eastern bloc, were once largely dedicated to revolution and national achievements, today documentaries are focusing on more personal and critical subjects. One such example is Diana el-Jeiroudi’s Dolls, A Woman from Damascus, a film which explores the sense of identity of Syrian women through the popular Fulla Doll, billed as an Islamic Barbie. The film was screened at some of last year’s most prestigious international film festivals, including the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam and the 2008 Montpellier Mediterranean Film Festival in France.

“Before the mid-seventies, Syrian filmmakers’ priorities were the Palestinian cause, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the building of a modern Syria,” Nyrabia said. “It was a deep belief in this revolutionary dogma, rather than production requirements, which drove them to make their films.”

Amiralay’s Flood best encapsulates the evolution of documentary filmmaking in the country. As a young director Amiralay visited the Assad Dam when it was being built and filmed a 15-minute black-and-white documentary as a tribute to what he viewed at the time as a major landmark in the modernisation of his country. He returned some 35 years later with the aim of correcting what he now regards as an “error of youth”. Amiralay’s follow-up film takes an uncompromising look at the effects of Arab socialism on the inhabitants of Al-Mashi, a village 400km north-east of Damascus.

Despite being received warmly on the international documentary circuit, the number of Syrians who have seen the film is small because it is banned in the country. Indeed, many of the country’s most critically acclaimed documentaries have never been screened domestically, despite the fact that some of these very same films were funded by the National Film Organisation (NFO), a government body.

“While film screenings are heavily censored in Syria, the NFO’s production policy has few red lines,” Nyrabia said. “That’s why the NFO has produced many of Syria’s critical films. This paradox has greatly benefited Syria’s film history and is still true today.”

Local documentary filmmakers may be increasingly interested in telling personal stories, but national causes remain of deep importance, Hazem al-Hamwi, a young documentary filmmaker, said.

“The new generation of directors has moved away from the traditional way of tackling national causes, giving more space to the personal,” Hamwi said. “They no longer take a collectivist approach. Instead, they start from their personal experience.”

Lack of funds

While Syria’s documentary scene is gradually gaining international acclaim, it still struggles locally with few funding opportunities and heavy political, social and religious censorship.

“The development of the scene at the moment is dependent on individual initiatives from filmmakers to make their films, or private festivals such as Dox Box to promote and support documentaries locally,” Hamwi said. “While some of these initiatives have been successful, they still need governmental support to continue.”

According to Nyrabia, the lack of self-criticism is another problem with locally produced documentaries.

“If we take a look at the successful documentary scenes in Sweden, Japan and the US, among others, we immediately notice how strongly self-critical they are,” he said. “In Syria we don’t want to hang out our dirty clothes, but unless we do we won’t be able to clean them.”

LIGHTS, CAMERA … FUNDING?
Eight to 12 documentaries are produced in Syria each year. Orwa Nyrabia, co-founder of ProAction Film Company and the Dox Box Documentary Film Festival, said the films are generally self-funded, or financed by broadcast companies which can cost from SYP 23,000 (USD 5,000) to SYP 2m (USD 45,000). International funding is rare.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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