Madeleine Davies

A Syrian Love Story: review

In Uncategorized on September 20, 2015 at 7:48 pm


In a Q&A after the screening of A Syrian Love Story in Crouch End, the host proposed to director Sean McAllister that it was “not exactly Mills and Boon”.

She’s right; but the film, five years in the making, is unmistakeably a love story. Jealousy, nostalgia, and passion are all shown in unsparing close-up – the camera is generally inches from the subjects’ faces – in this account of a marriage in crisis, for which the tragic failure of the Syrian uprising is the extraordinary backdrop.

McAllister met Amer Daoud, a Palestinian freedom fighter, in Damascus in 2008. Unlike those journalists who responded to the Syrian government’s overtures by printing puff pieces, he asked awkward questions about the detention of political prisoners. Daoud suggested he tell the story of his wife, Raghda Hasan, an Alawite (like President Bashar al Assad) but also a dissident. She was in prison, at the time, and Daoud was raising their children, including three-year-old Bob, alone.

Bob.3. talks to his mother, in prison

Bob, 3, talks to his mother, in prison

Over the course of the subsequent years, McAllister filmed the family on a small camera purchased from a shop in Damascus, capturing Hasan’s release in 2011 during an amnesty prompted by the Syrian uprising, through to their exile to Lebanon, and, eventually, safety in Paris. He has also preserved evidence of a marriage under huge strain: a wife told she cannot be “both Che Guevara and a mother” and a father struggling to reconnect with the woman he fell in love with through a hole in a prison wall who has emerged, drawn, from a dungeon. The footage is intimate, occasionally uncomfortably so, filmed in the sparse apartments through which the family move in search of refuge. It’s a complete contrast to documentaries that seek to explain the Middle East through news archive footage and talking heads pontificating in the studio.

It’s extremely illuminating.

As thousands of Syrians seek to make the journey to Europe, this film shows both the transformative power of refuge – Daoud finally finds peace in France and Bob declares himself “not an Arab; I’m French” – and its limitations. Hasan misses her lemon tree in Tartus. At times, it feels as if the family are permanently glued to their laptops, and footage of home makes Bob cry for these “sweet days”.

In a world in which the origins of the Syrian uprising appear to have been forgotten amid blood-curdling headlines about ISIS, this is a vital reminder that just four years ago thousands of people believed they might be on the brink of a revolution. Their slogans were “Just God, Syria and freedom” and “We do not want your bread, we want dignity.” Daoud was among them and, on her release, Hasan struggled to stay away from the frontline of the cause to which she has dedicated her life. McAllister reminds us that women are deeply engaged in dissent in the Middle East, and has produced a sensitive exploration of the personal sacrifice peculiar to mothers. His film is also a portrait of a husband and father overshadowed in his revolutionary zeal by his wife, but almost unfailingly supportive of her commitment to a cause which pulls her from home.

YarmoukThe gasps generated at the screening by shots of people queuing for food at Yarmouk, in Syria (right), and of the devastation wreaked by al-Assad’s bombing raids, testify to the fact that footage of life within Syria rarely makes it into our media anymore. McAllister suggested during the Q&A that our press has capitulated to Bashar al-Assad’s manipulation, swallowing the idea that, with ISIS on the march, he is holding the line against terrorists. He is clear that the President, a “bastard”, is the real threat to Syria. But he is certain, too, that Daoud and Hasan’s revolution has failed. It’s hard to disagree. But the story of those behind the original uprising deserves to be told, and this film does them justice. A filmmaker who left school without any qualifications and learned his art at a community centre, he persisted in filming in Syria despite securing no interest from the BBC or any certainty that it would ever get shown. Last week, the Controller of the BBC watched A Syrian Love Story and decided to promote it from BBC4 to BBC1. Please watch it.


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