Hazem al-Hamwi is a young Syrian who entered the world of filmmaking without any introductions or academic studies, and even without learning the “craft” from dedicated filmmakers. Working hard to “earn” his first home video camera, al-Hamwi carved out a place for himself as a documentary and experimental filmmaker in his local cinema scene. Today, nothing can hinder his steady and composed camera from crossing red lines and following his favorite theme: the place.
Syrian filmmakers always complain about censorship, which is considered by many to be one of the main reasons behind Syria’s limited film production. Yet, like many other Syrian directors, you managed in “Tufulet Al-Makan” to cross religious as well as sectarian red lines. Do you think self-censorship has become stricter than that imposed by the government?
Fear mostly originates from past experiences related to the prior history of a person or a group. But a fearful mind is unable to produce art. This, of course, does not mean that one should be reckless, but we often hear our government making statements about development and change, so why don’t we think positively and try to test that. Even if we only achieve part of what we want, we would still be creating more productive conditions for the upcoming generations.
As for censorship being the main reason behind Syria’s limited film production, I strongly oppose this view. With this, filmmakers are only making excuses for themselves. It’s enough to look at the great accomplishment of Iranian cinema in spite of the harsh censorship regulations imposed on their cinema industry to negate this view. Not to mention that censorship is a very loose term and I personally believe that indirect social censorship can be stricter than that imposed by the government.
Few Syrian filmmakers have been working as independently as you; it was only recently that you studied filmmaking in the Arab Film Institute in Jordan and most of your films are self-financed or lack financial support. How far can independent Syrian filmmakers go?
My working independently was the result of the lack of governmental support for cinema rather than a choice or an objective. I personally regard it as a reaction to the production problems and it has, therefore, its pros and cons. The downside lies in the stress caused by my being in charge of handling all technical, operational and executive aspects of the filmmaking process.
The positive side, on the other hand, lies in developing an active and productive mentality that doesn’t resort to mere “complaining”, but which finds solutions to face up to and change the status quo. After all, the reality that I am filming is much more important than the type of camera I’m using. By adopting this mentality, I reversed the spell by transforming my problems into strengths and my struggle into a source of respect.
It is also important to highlight that independent filmmakers need to have a means for survival and continuity. The government and civil society organizations should support filmmakers. Unfortunately, we have very few such organizations in Syria and most initiatives are undertaken by individuals. They deserve a lot of respect for that.
Syrian critic Khalil Sweileh wrote (Al-Akhbar /27 January 2007) that “the main characteristic of Arab young filmmakers’ films is the ‘uprising of the ego’”… and their moving away from “nationalist concerns that marked the past decades”. Looking at your films and at the Syrian film production at large, to what extent is that true?
I think it’s true. Even though many of the old Syrian films had a highly cinematographic language, they were overloaded with ideologies. This affected the film’s intellectual as well as artistic shape. As a result, they seemed sober, obscure, and had no sense of play, so to speak. Although this does not apply to all Syrian films, generally speaking this was the main characteristic of the first Syrian films.
Back to the argument of Sweileh, the ego will have the final say. It will find its way to express itself; to play, to distress and rejoice, make mistakes and succeed… I can see that in the works of my colleagues. While this might be unprofessional, it’s definitely healthy. I personally make films for the fun of it. It gives me a special sense of pleasure. That’s why there’s a lot of experimentation in my work because I enjoy working on the unexpected. Making a film is like going on an ego trip where you discover a lot of inner treasures. The ego is very demanding but it also has a lot to give.
You have recently been awarded a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in 2009 to produce the second part of your documentary “Tufulet Al-Makan.” Could you tell us more about the film?
“Tufulet Al-Makan” will be three parts and I will make the second and the third part with the grant funding. All three parts are depicting place, or rather the soul of the place, so to speak.
What are the Syrian, Arab or international films that had the biggest impact on you?
I was never influenced by a film as a whole. Rather, I was touched by some aspects of films. I admire, for example, the cinematography of “Kombars” by Syrian director Nabil Al-Maleh, the visual language of Osama Muhammad’s “Sunduk Al-Dunia”, the harmony in the Egyptian film “The mummy” by Shadi Abdel Salam and the rhetoric of Stanley Kubrick’s works in general.
This article was published in Tafaseel periodical e-magazine specialized in documentary films. Tafaseel is a publication of Proaction Film company.