x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Poignant Focus on Syria section at Locarno

The Focus on Syria section at the ongoing Locarno Film Festival screened documentaries by filmmakers who risked exile in their bid to lay stress upon the truth and tragedy of the hapless situation.

Black Stone. Courtesy Locarno Film Festival
Black Stone. Courtesy Locarno Film Festival

After the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, film festivals such as Cannes quickly programmed documentaries made in those countries about the removal of dictators through popular protest. These films were often upbeat in tone, as they were made before it became apparent that the changes did not necessarily signal a new democracy. The documentaries quickly seemed dated.

The situation with Syria has been more complex. There has been an ongoing civil war, President Bashar Al Assad has remained in government, and the international community has been split over how to respond, with Russia and the US supporting opposing factions.

Judging by the films shown in the Focus on Syria section at the Locarno Film Festival currently being held in Switzerland, the response from filmmakers has also been more astute and complicated.

In his debut year as artistic director, Carlo Chatrian put together a programme of five Syrian films made in the past decade that offer unique and intriguing insights into life in the country both before and after the recent war began.

There is the world premiere of Untold Stories by Hisham Al Zouki, the 2006 Unicef-backed film Black Stone by Nidal Al Dibs, the poetic Zabad made by the Syrian actress-turned-director Reem Ali, Randa Maddah's Light Horizon (a one-shot movie that lasts seven minutes) and True Stories of Love, Life, Death and Sometimes Revolution by the Syrian filmmaker Nidal Hassan and Danish director Lilibeth Rasmussen.

Chatrian accurately describes the works as "courageous films often made under extremely difficult circumstances, but which nonetheless proclaim their maker's determination to experiment with cinema and new media as a way to tell the world about the ills afflicting their country".

Black Stone and Zabad were personal stories about dissatisfaction with life in Syria that were banned by the state before the recent uprising. The filmmakers behind Untold Stories and Love, Life, Death and Sometimes Revolution had to shoot clandestinely and subsequently flee the country before releasing their films. Light Horizon was shot in the Golan Heights, a part of Syria occupied by Israel after the 1967 war, and reflects on the effect that war has on villages and citizens.

Al Zouki says that part of his motivation for making Untold Stories is to show the situation on the ground.

"Last year we just saw a lot of stories from Syria manipulated by the news. Everyone is wondering what is going on in Syria. The film somehow tries to focus on the normal people living in Syria who in some way started the movement and the process.

"I can't document everything that happened in two years but I just wanted to give an impression of what is happening. Everyone thinks that this is a war between Islamists and secular individuals. That is not true. I wanted to show Muslims who are not extremists and can demand a civil state. The real story is that this is not war about religion: it is very simple - it's about freedom."

The Damascus-born director knew that by making Untold Stories, he will now be put on a blacklist and prevented from returning to Syria. In 1987 he was put in jail for seven years, when at university, for being a student activist. He currently lives in Norway.

Reem Ali, the director of Zabad, made in 2008, was unable to attend the festival as the former actress fled Syria during the current uprising and now resides in Beirut; she has no passport. Zabad is a poetic film told from the perspective of a disabled man, about how changes in the country and in personal circumstances lead to his family leaving him to fend for himself in Syria. Both Zabad and Black Stone, set in one of Syria's poorest regions, hint at the dissatisfaction that has been festering in the country for 40 years.

The speed at which events took hold of the country is apparent in Love, Life, Death and Sometimes Revolution. The filmmakers started making a picture about "honour" killing in Syria on the day the uprising started and quickly realised that they had to change the focus and turn their camera onto the revolt against the government.

The films highlight the suppression of artists with scenes of individuals being prevented from taking photographs or shooting footage. Both sides seem acutely aware that winning the media war is as crucial as the physical combat on the ground. Yet none of these documentaries feel like they are agitprop.

Randa Maddah on Light Horizon

The film was made in the Golan Heights. How does this relate to events in Syria?

I made this film eight months after the start of the revolution. It's filmed in the Golan Heights in a place occupied by Israel in 1967. This village of Ain Fit was destroyed by Israel so the idea of the movie was to talk about what is happening in Syria right now by recalling that this destruction happened already in history in 1967, but this time it is the Syrian regime that is destroying the country.

The film is more like video art. Is there a hidden message?

The main idea of the film is that it's about coming back to life from two perspectives. Firstly from me, in that I wasn't born there, but I go there and take back the place and it's a kind of occupation again but in a positive way, in the film I go back there and I clean it. On the other hand, the place itself grows back to life because people are living there again.

Is this your way to connect to events happening in Syria?

I am Syrian, and this is a way to take part in the events taking place in my country. Of course, I wish that I could go back to Syria.

How do you feel about the international response?

We are annoyed by what is happening now. At the start this was a natural request by the Syrian people to get their own freedom and dignity but now it has become like a conspiracy because all the international players want the Syrian people to play a role for their own objectives - and this is very disturbing because they are trying to turn a revolution into a sectarian war.

The Locarno Film Festival continues until Saturday. Visit www.pardolive.ch