Born in Damascus in 1944 to the son of a high-ranking officer in the Ottoman military and a Lebanese mother, Omar Amiralay headed to Paris in 1965 to pursue studies in drama and theater at the Théâtre des Nations. Gradually he began to lean towards cinema and enrolled at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques, or IDHEC (now known as FEMIS) in 1967. He was deeply suspicious of fiction cinema, and after a year at the institute began to question whether film was really his vocation. When the 1968 student revolt erupted, Amiralay joined the hordes of protestors, and began to film. His fate was sealed; he never returned to the IDHEC and instead began to make documentary films.

He returned to Damascus eager to instigate a new documentary cinema. His first film, ‘Film-Muhawalah ‘An Sadd al-Furat’ (‘Film-Essay on the Euphrates Dam’, 1970) was an enthusiastic documentation of the Baath regime's construction of the Assad dam on the Euphrates river that promised to bring radical improvement to surrounding villages. His second documentary film, conceived with Sa‘adallah Wannus, one of Syria's most celebrated modernist playwrights and essayists, was radically different. Titled ‘al-Hayat al-Yaomiyyah fi Qarya Suriyya’ (‘Everyday Life in a Syrian Village’, 1974) it was a scathing critique of the government's failure to provide basic amenities to the poor. The film, produced by the General Organization for Cinema, was banned and remains so to this day. His third film, ‘al-Dajaj’ (‘The Chickens’, 1977), was produced for Syrian television and continued in the same critical vein, this time documenting the plight of poor peasants suffering as a result of failed ventures in chicken farming promised by the state to bring prosperity.

Amiralay's new approach to documentary filmmaking gradually became recognized in the Arab world and Europe. He was commissioned to direct a documentary on the socialist revolution in Yemen ‘‘An Thawra’ (‘About a Revolution’, 1978), and the civil war in Lebanon ‘Masa ’ibu Qawm ‘Inda Qawm Fouad’ (‘The Misfortunes of Some’, 1982). The latter remains one of the most compelling documentary films about the war. A number of films followed, most commissioned by television channels in France, including: ‘Ra’ihat al-Janna’ (‘A Scent of Paradise’, 1982) on Palestinian refugees during the Israeli siege of Beirut; ‘al-Hubb al-Maow’ud’ (‘The Sarcophagus of Love’, 1984) on contemporary social conditions of women in Egypt; ‘al-‘Aduu al-Hamim’ or ‘L'Enemi intime’ (‘The Intimate Enemy’, 1985) on the rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism amongst immigrants of Arab origin in France; ‘A l'attention de Madame le Premier Ministre Bénazir Bhutto’ (‘For the Attention of Madame the Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’, 1989-1994) on the expectations carried by Benazir Bhutto's appointment as prime minister; ‘Par un jour de violence ordinaire, mon ami Michel Seurat’, (‘On a Day of Ordinary Violence, my Friend Michel Seurat’, 1996), a tribute to the French sociologist, Michel Seurat, kidnapped and slain by Al-Jihad al-Islami in Lebanon; ‘Hunalika Ashiya’ Kathira Kana Yumken an Yatahadath ‘Anha al-Mare’’ (‘There Are So Many Things Still to Say’, 1997), the last testimony from Sa‘adallah Wannus recorded a few months before his passing; ‘Tabaq al-Sardin’ (‘A Plate of Sardines’ or ‘The First Time I Heard of Israel’, 1997), a reflection and conversation with filmmaker Mohammad Malas on the subjective recording of the conflict with Israel; ‘Rajol al-Hitha’ al-Thahabi’ (‘The Man with the Golden Soles’, 2000), a documentary on slain Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri; and finally, ‘Tufan Fi Balad el-Ba‘th’ (‘A Flood in Baath Country’, 2003), in which the filmmaker returns to the Assad dam on the Euphrates river, filmed in his first documentary to interview the enforcers of the Baath regime's dogma, a school master and a parliamentary representative. The film caused uproar and controversy because it presents a damning portrait of the ideological bankruptcy of the Baath, and of the regime's annihilation of the basic precepts of citizenship.

From very early on, Amiralay's films earned a number of awards worldwide, beginning with Leipzig (1971) for ‘Film-Essay on the Euphrates Dam’. His cinema has become canon for generations of documentary filmmakers in the Arab world. The most recent edition of the Cinéma du Réel festival at Paris' Centre Pompidou dedicated a hommage to his work in March 2006.

A Plate of Sardines - or The First Time I Heard of Israel
, 17 min, Syria/France, 1997
Courtesy of ArteEast and the filmmaker

“The first time I heard of Israel, I was in Beirut, the conversation was about a plate of sardines. I was six years old, Israel was two.” In the company of filmmaker Mohammad Malas, Omar Amiralay revisits the ruins of the destroyed village of Quneytra.


The text about Omar Amiralay is reprinted with permission of the publishers; text originally published in 'Insights into Syrian Cinema', co-published by Rattapallax Press and ArteEast in 2006. All rights reserved.