Alternate Views: TIFF Spotlights Syrian Docs

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait
Courtesy of Film Reference Library

By Pat Mullen

Film scholar Peter Harcourt once called Canadian film an ‘invisible cinema’ since audiences here often don’t know a Canadian film when they see one or, more likely, have trouble finding one on their own screens. Syrian films, however, embody this guise of an invisible cinema far more literally than Canadian films do today. Even at a film festival, these images are hard to come by and audiences rarely have any sense of the Middle Eastern nation beyond the Isis-suffused images one sees in the news.A new series of films curated at TIFF Bell Lightbox brings timely docs into the spotlight to present some alternative views. TIFF’s ‘Syria Self-Portraits: Chronicles of Tyranny, Chronicles of War’, which runs August 26 to September 4, offers Toronto audiences a rare chance to see images of Syria made by Syrians, which seems especially topical in the wake of the contemporary global migration crisis and Canada’s role in welcoming refugees into the land. (See the recent short doc 19 Days and our interview with directors Asha Siad and Roda Siad for a Canadian perspective on the topic.)

In her introduction to the series, curator and TIFF programmer Rasha Salti writes how ‘Syrian cinema’ is virtually non-existent as a national cinema or a collective output. “Until the eve of the non-violent popular insurrection in 2011,” Salti writes, “what ‘Syrian cinema’ effectively referred to was the body of profoundly subjective, independent-minded auteur films that began to be produced in the 1970s, which travelled to international film festivals and earned critical acclaim and awards but remained little-known in their own country. Thus, in place of a national cinema that served as a repository of a collective national imaginary, in Syria the cinema became a site of internal dissent: a critical, often subversive voice within a single-party state that is all too actively involved in suppressing opposition. Satirically, symbolically or directly revealing the disconnect between official discourse and lived reality, Syrian filmmakers used their work to write a people’s history, and write the people into history.”

‘Syria Self-Portraits’ offers an abridged effort to show something like a national cinema. The series begins with the auteur-driven works of the 1970s and runs through to contemporary docs that screened at recent editions of the festival. The series lets film-goers reframe their sense of what constitutes a national cinema in advance of the fall festival season and the smorgasbord of contemporary world cinema that awaits, for the self-portraits that appear here are largely alternative ones.

The series begins Friday with two docs: one short film and one mid-length feature. The short, Ossama Mohammed’s Step by Step, chronicles the oppressive society from which the film emerged. Fittingly enough, films by this influential filmmaker bookend the series, as Mohammed’s 2014 feature Silvered Water: Syria Self-Portraits ends the festival with a contemporary snaps hot of ordinary citizens during the Syrian uprising. The film, , co-directed with Wiam Simav Bedirxa, sees one generation pass the camera along to another.

Step by Step plays with the inspiring A Flood in Baath Country by Omar Amiralay , which also highlights the role of education and the voices of Syria’s youth. The film looks at one community and the problems associated with a faulty dam that ultimately stand in for greater longstanding injustice. There are voices of anger and resentment as veteran politicians confess to the camera, but also notes of optimism as Amiralay observes students in the classroom. Very much self-aware of the camera, the schoolchildren recite propaganda with knowing smiles. It’s an empty ritual and they know it.

Also playing in the series is the acclaimed Return to Homes by Talal Derki. This doc, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, offers a feat of on-the-ground reportage from the bombed-out ruins of the Syrian Civil War. As both a lesson in contemporary history and a feat of documentary filmmaking, it’s essential viewing.

Docs screening in the series are:

Friday, August 26 at 6:30 p.m:

Step by Step (Khutwa Khutwa)
Dir. Ossama Mohammed | Syria 1977 | 25 min. | PG | 16mm
A frightening, captivating, and insightful portrait of how the Baath regime transformed generations of peasants into citizen-soldiers.

screens with:

A Flood in Baath Country (Tawfan Fi Bilad al-Ba’ath) dir. Omar Amiralay | Syria/France | 2003 | 48 min. | PG | Digital Omir Amiralay uses a faultily constructed state-built dam as a potent metaphor for the corroding effects of four decades of Baathist rule over Syria.. —>Introduced by Kay Dickinson, author and professor of film studies at Carleton University.

Thursday, September 1 at 8:45 p.m.

Return to Homs (Al-Awdah ila Homs)
dir. Talal Derki | Syria/Germany | 2013 | 90 min. | 14A | Digital
Filmed over three years during the siege of Homs in the ongoing civil war, Talal Derki’s visceral, close-up documentary chronicles how two committed pacifist insurgents against the Assad regime try to resist surrendering to the encroaching violence of the armed conflict.

Friday, September 2 at 8:45 p.m.:

Haunted (Maskoon)
dir. Liwaa Yazji | Syria | 2014 | 112 min. | 14A | Digital
Filmmaker Liwaa Yazji weaves conversations with friends, family and internal refugees from the Syrian civil war into an eloquent meditation on the physical, emotional and psychological toll of displacement.

Saturday, September 3 at 1 p.m.:

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (Ma’a al Fidda)
dirs. Ossama Mohammed & Wiam Simav Bedirxan | Syria/France | 2014 | 92 min. | R | Digital
The astonishing collaboration between exiled Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed and young Kurdish activist Wiam Simav Bedirxan distills footage from thousands of clandestine videos to create a shattering, on-the-ground documentary chronicle of the ordeal being undergone by ordinary Syrians in the ongoing civil war.

‘Syria Self-Portraits’ runs in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox from August 26 to September 4.