Escape from Captivity: Syrian short documentaries at the International Film Festival Rotterdam

The documentaries made by young Syrian documentary film makers that are shown outside of Syria now, did visit the International Rotterdam Film Festival last week. They gave a peak into a vanishing world in captivity. But as in the streets of the Syrian cities revolutionaries are breaking through the mental and physical barricades of the Assad regime, the films show an image in which the beauty of a naïf humanity is breaking through grey social image the world has of Syria.


Panel discussion Syrian filmmakers with moderator Bas Heijne at International Film Festival Rotterdam. 

Something that features in all of the Syrian films shown at the festival, for the mere fact that they are Syrian, is a sense of escape from captivity, like Soudade Kaadan, maker of the short documentary “Two cities and a prison” remarked at the final panel discussion. It is this escapism, often into emptiness, that also strikes the viewer most. It is an escape from a world that is hard as stone. A world that leaves human individuals no place but at the fringes of society: Spacially, mentally, socially. The movies show the different ways man gives color and beauty to this exile of humanity.

The first bloc shown on Thursday february 2nd had a substance hard as stone. The first movie “Flint Mountain” by Niddal Hassan is a portrait of an old stonemason that choose the recluse of the mountains over the life down the hill. As a newfound ‘finder of artistic stone’, he revamped himself  as a suffering artist, a recognizers of the impenetrable beauty of the physically hard reality of Syria.  “Stone bird” by Hazem Alhamwi is a portrait of “Abu Hajar”, “Man with a stone”, half madman, half reflection of a mad society. From the rags and lumps of clothing’s that cover him rises a tragic human story for which there was no place in a rigid Syrian society. Instead of engaging in that society, Abu Hajar chooses the life of a vagabond.


Filmmaker Hazem Alhamwi explainign something to moderator Bas Heijne at panel discussion Syrian documentaries International Film Festival Rotterdam. 

The second bloc of films which was more experimental, showed a more impressionistic image of Syria. Especially the first 4 short films “They were here”, “Before Vanishing”, “The Right Side of That Road” en “City of Emptiness” by respectively Ammar Al-Beik, Joude Gorani, Hazem Alhamwi and Ali Sheikh Khurd, are stills of a still society. The docs show the tragic beauty of Syria. A beauty distilled in images of vanishing rivers, disappearing industrial entrepreneurship and a road lost in history.

“Silence” by Rami Farah, gives an idea of the political world behind this tragic beauty as it investigates the Golan city of Qamishli, which is the only city the Syrians won back from Israël during the 1973 war.  From the perspective of a 100 year old man and a Syrian government employee in Qamishli, two images rise of the tragic story that kept internal political disconcert quiet for so long in Syria.

In the last two movies “Two cities and a prison” by Soudade Kaadan and “Foam” by Reem Ali, the stone of Syrian society breaks open and shows some of the naive beauty it has to offer. In the first movie we see the cute interaction of actors and their public during an interactive play travelling different Syrian cities and the expressions of some youngsters in youth prison in Damascus when they participate in a similar interactive acting project. Through the sharp close-ups especially of the young prisoners, a picture distills of lively people who start to think inside the box. A process that led to the box breaking open during the enduring revolts in Syria of the moment.

A somewhat similar meaning can be distilled from “Foam” in which through the portrait of a mentally impaired man, the story of the world around him is reflected. The lightness and touching naiveté of the man contrasts starkly with the heaviness of his sister, who as a political prisoner spent years in Syrian jails and is still jailed within the confines of a rigid Syrian society. It is the lightness though of the man that gives beauty to the heaviness of the woman. And it is this tragic interaction of free human imagination and strict social and political confines that runs through the movies as a tragic thread that is turning increasingly red with the civil war currently unfolding in the country.


Filmmaker Reem Ali (left) in discussion with the public at panel discussion Syrian Documentaries at International Film Festival Rotterdam. 

The movies show an image of vivid humanity, vivid imagination and creative exploration. In terms of cinematography the films show the move away from the metaphoric symbolism of the past generation of Syrian filmmakers, towards what maker of “Stone Bird” and “The Right Side of That Road” Hazem Alhamwi calls a greater individualism. As moderator Bas Heijne describes it “Individual impressions take the place of a collective statement”.

It is this change in the Syrian films shown at the festival in exile, that connects most with current events in the country in which individual self-expression is no longer pushed to the fringes, but is breaking open in its heart. From the shadow where no one can see it, in youth prison, on the mountain or in a mad man, break the first spots of light for Syrian self-expression and self-assertion.

Like the stone depicting Syria and that is breaking open as we speak, these documentaries give an image of color, life and beauty that through piles of rubble is to grow and blossom in the future. The first hints of free expressive beauty give optimism of what the Syrian people and Syrian film has to offer. First there are battles to be fought though both in real life and artistically. To quote filmmaker Reem Ali’s closing statement: “Now the revolution spreads around Syria we start to understand why the last generation of filmmakers used symbols in fear of repression. But we are not returning to symbolism. Now the revolution has started we will fight ‘directly’ and with realism for a real world.”


Filmmaker Hazem Alhamwi singing his ‘encore’ at the end of the panel discussion on Syrian documentary film making at International Film Festival Rotterdam. 

Ruben Elsinga holds a MSc. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He lived in Damascus, Syria, for one and a half years, where he worked at the Netherlands Institute of Academic Studies. Beside on this blog he publishes in other Dutch and international media and on his own blog on the Middle East and on identity politics. 


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