Journeyman Pictures

Under the Sky of Damascus Review: Women Talking, Syrian Edition

Doc examines the courage of speaking out against abuse

5 mins read

Under the Sky of Damascus
(USA/Denmark/Syria/Germany, 88 min.)
Dir. Heba Khaled, Talal Derki, Ali Wajeeh


“Her only fault is that she said, ‘No, I don’t want to,” observes director Heba Khaled in voiceover. The director speaks about the inspiration that she and other women find in Sabah Al Salem in Under the Sky of Damascus. Khaled notes that Sabah served time in prison for standing up for herself. Put another way, Sabah endured punishment for defying a man.

Under the Sky of Damascus poetically examines the ways in which the women of Syria face ongoing oppression in a patriarchal culture. The film observes a group of women who, like Khaled, find strength in Sabah’s story. It’s one they know painfully too well. Khaled tells the story of Syrian women artists including Farah, Inana, Eliana, and other actresses and playwrights who collaborated to shared their collective experiences. They mount a stage production they call “The Play.” It’s a bold and courageous mission to give a platform to women’s stories and provide a voice to survivors of domestic violence. “The Play” inevitably faces criticism and resistance, and the ripple effects are both surprising and not.

“The Play” features a cathartic research process, if an emotionally and mentally exhausting one. The women create an urgent non-fiction theatre work. It draws inspiration from misogyny, harassment, and violence they’ve survived. At the same time, each artist needs space to process what she hears. Stories from one woman echo in the experiences of another. The participants heal past traumas by speaking out. They telling others that they’re not alone while facing that reckoning themselves. It’s difficult but powerful to watch.

A sense of lingering trauma permeates every frame, too, as Khaled describes the story in voiceover. She is, however, physically removed from the production she documents. As she explains, she films the story remotely from Denmark. Having fled Syria and unable to return after eight years, she recognizes that shooting from abroad is the only way to tell this story, practically or safely.

Khaled reunites with director Talal Derki, with whom she collaborated on the Oscar-nominated documentary Of Fathers and Sons, and they bring a nuanced perspective to the story. Their man on the ground in Damascus is Ali Wajeeh with Khaled occasionally appearing on the screen of his phone to converse with, or direct, participants from afar. Together, they join the women making “The Play” in achieving a rare, daring feat: getting women in Syrian to speak on record about the violence that oppresses them and the society that enables it.

The necessity of speaking out hits home when women involved with “The Play” experience harassment anew from within their own team. In a twist, production of the play pauses and the directors bring the women to Lebanon. The team refocuses on safe and neutral ground. Moreover, the women open up about what happened with a man on the team, shaking while they note the danger in speaking out about a man with such intimate knowledge of their project. Filming for Under the Sky of Damascus pauses and nearly falls through, but the necessity for both projects doubles.

The jarring twist about “The Play” also brings the story into sharper focus. The first half of the documentary plays somewhat disjointedly as the theatre co-op navigates how best to tell their story. The overlapping storylines and competing testimonies can be disorienting, but once their teammate violates their trust, the doc crystalizes narratively. It’s a cruel dramatic turn, but one that pointedly illustrates how men normalize misogynistic behaviour. Even professed allies can be predators.

Under the Sky of Damascus finds a chilling image for a society that’s been collectively violated, too, as the camera drifts outside the playhouse walls and away from the dramatic co-op’s healing circle. Drone shots capture the shell-shocked streets of Damascus where bombed-out buildings offer a city’s skeletal remains. Violence hangs in the air, but hope survives in the people on the ground who push for change.

Under the Sky of Damascus screened at Hot Docs Doc Soup series on March 6.



Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

Previous Story

Canadian Screen Award Nominees in Documentary and Factual Categories

Next Story

Nuked Review: Bikini and the Bomb Revisited

Latest from Blog

0 $0.00