This week, Syrians forgot to commemorate the death anniversary of one of their heroes – a pre-uprising activist that depicted life under the Baathist regime like no other.
A film that foretold the downfall of the Baathist conceits
Thirty-three years ago, I was a staunch advocate of modernising my homeland, Syria, to the degree that my first film was about building a dam: the Euphrates Dam, the source of pride and joy for the Baath Party
That introduction to the film A Flood in Baath Country leads to a very different story. Life under the Baath Party in Syria was not about modernity, but about a facade that led to these past two years of bloodshed. Last Tuesday marked the second anniversary of the death of the filmmaker, Omar Amiralay, who passed away 38 days before the first mass anti-regime protests in his home city of Damascus. Before he died, Amiralay was one of a few Syrian intellectuals who signed a statement endorsing the pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Despite the relevance of his life and career, the anniversary went unnoticed. Amiralay, who produced over 20 films, believed that cinema could have more lasting effect on society than any other form of art. And this film about life under the Baath Party, which was released in 2003, is a fine depiction of a dark era in Syria's history.
The film's introduction continues: "Today I regret that mistake I had committed in my youth. The collapse of a dam [Zeyzoun Dam in 2002] and the release of a report that foresees the same fate for the rest of dams that were built during the reign of the Baath Party pushed me back to the location of my first film."
Purportedly Amiralay received funding for the film from the Syrian government, which believed that he would portray the Baath's largest development project in a positive light. After he finished shooting, he travelled to Paris to edit the film.
One of the most powerful images juxtaposes an old man's foot with the land surrounding the dam. The man's foot is cracked and dry; the land is cracked and dry. The metaphor for the Baath Party rule in Syria is obvious.
The film features villagers who lived near the dam, where hundreds of houses were destroyed without compensation for residents or consideration for heritage. "We have been left with nothing but memories," one villager from a village in Raqqa governate says. "Under each house, you would find traces of civilisations and bygone ages. Our beloved village is one of the earliest human settlements, where man settled and tried to grow crops and reap the fruits of his work."
Amiralay then focuses on Al Mashi village, between the town of Manbij in Aleppo governate and the Euphrates River, which he says embodies the kind of Syria that the Baath Party sought to build. The village is named after a family that pledged unswerving loyalty to the Party. Thiab Al Mashi, a tribal leader, served in parliament for over 53 years - the longest serving parliamentarian in history, according to the film. His nephew heads the local Baath branch as well as the village school.
During the regime's campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s - the 21st anniversary of the Hama Massacre was commemorated on Friday - the elder Al Mashi armed 100 of his tribesmen to force people in Manbij to end civil-disobedience actions. In the film, he says he was then forced to sell his car because the Brotherhood had threatened to blow it up. Mr Al Mashi took pride in the fact that then-president Hafez Al Assad sent the chief of political security to personally thank him.
"After the death of the great and eternal leader, Hafez Al Assad, may God have mercy on him," the nephew said, "we have made an oath to the comrade, Dr Bashar Hafez Al Assad to be loyal soldiers who continue with full energy to educate our sons to follow in their footsteps."
Amiralay captures the absurdity of the Baath Party in another excerpt taken from the primary education curriculum read by students at the village. The extract suggests how the people who live along the Euphrates River should be grateful to the Baath Party for "civilising" them: "On the fifth of July, the Euphrates River joined a new school to learn how to read and write and to fall in love with the fields and the trees in a modern way. At the school's door, President Hafez Al Assad removed the river's muddy cloak, trimmed his unkempt hair, cut his long nails and gave him a green-ink pen and a notebook to write his diaries as a civilised river."
The extract then refers to how the Baath's achievements are not limited to Syria alone: "Al Assad proclaimed as he changes the course of the river that the Euphrates Dam constructed by the Baath is not an engineering work for Syria alone; it is a pan-Arab one and that Palestine has its share."
Amiralay may have been forgotten amid the momentous events of the uprising. And yet when he died, the Baath Party commemorated his passing, perhaps because to the regime a good Syrian is a dead Syrian.
On Twitter: hhassan140