Arriving in Syria in December 2004 I met exuberantly proud people, enthusiastic, eager, vital and welcoming. Happy families generously opened their lives, their heritage, and their homes, shared their food and culture, were open and honest, seriously devout. Their architecture was magnificent, awe inspiring and now sadly lost forever. Like many, I struggle to understand how it all came apart so horrifically, so dreadfully.
A Syrian Love Story, filmed over four years beginning 18 months before the Arab Spring, documents the lives of an extraordinary family, and goes some way to showing the searing impact of civil war on close relationships as well as on a proud and well-established country.
The couple, Amer and Raghda met in President Assad’s Syrian prisons: Amer had been a Palestinian freedom fighter and Raghda was a Syrian revolutionary. He saw her first through a hole in his cell wall, bruised and bloodied from a beating by Assad’s thugs. They fell in love and several children later she wrote a book criticising the government and was once again in prison. It was at this point in their lives that Amer met director Sean McAllister who had travelled to Syria looking for a "real story" that reflected the political turmoil in the country.
What he got was a story of family life and a marriage unravelling at an exponential rate, the ripples surging into the lives of their children as they became dislocated by the struggles in Syria and relocated to fall apart in France. Mc Allister also got arrested.
However, filming continued through the Syrian uprising in 2011 and A Syrian Love Story is a very intimate tale. In and out of the family’s peripatetic lives, McAllister documents as a strange mix of family friend and sort of confessor. This could have been intrusive and uncomfortable to watch, especially the children’s acute awareness of their parents’ problems, but Raghda and Amer are so articulate, as well as honest, that you never feel the couple have lost control of the process.
McAllister’s touch is light and he does not intrude as narrator; rather he recedes into the background, even though in the process of documenting their lives he has also changed them. Filming using a hand held camera means there is an intensity of emotion, which involves the viewer in the choices the couple make and their decisions.
Yet through it all the bigger picture remains – the knowledge that all this interpersonal strife is the direct result of political oppression and (inter)national catastrophe. No matter how close he becomes to the family, McAllister somehow keeps focused on the fact that this is all a microcosm of a more global crisis.
Towards the end of the film, Amer wearily asks why McAllister is still shooting when he has supposedly “finished”. One wonders whether the crumbling state of Syria and the disassembled lives of its people will ever be finished.
The final words of hope go to Raghda: “Many waves take me to strange places but inside me still, I have this hope… for humanity, for freedom, for my country.”
Directed, written and shot by McAllister (The Liberace of Baghdad, The Reluctant Revolutionary) and edited by Matthew Scholes, it’s a relatively short film, at only 70 minutes long. The deserving winner of the grand jury prize at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in August, A Syrian Love Story benefits from evocative use of music, including tracks from Le Trio Joubran, which give depth, tension and resonance to the unfolding drama.
A Syrian Love Story, accompanied by Q&A is showing at FACT this Friday 25 September at 6.30pm. Book tickets here.