LENS ON SYRIA
THIRTY YEARS OF CONTEMPORARY CINEMA
Details to be anounced shortly...
Syrian film is often described as Arab cinema's "best kept secret," and "Lens on Syria" provides an unprecedented opportunity for audiences to discover a politically timely and relevant body of work, ranging from documentary films, fiction films, comedies to political dramas and historical epics, all representative of one of the richest -albeit lesser-known- of world cinemas.
The programme proposed by ArteEast includes an array of features, documentaries and short films by the country's most celebrated filmmakers and emerging independent young talents. It is the first to provide an overview of that scope, bringing forward the cinematic vocabulary of a national cinema to which the world has rarely turned its attention. Furthermore, the program includes digitally re-mastered gems of Syrian cinema whose original prints were on the brink of complete deterioration. ArteEast has allocated a special budget to have them subtitled in English for the purposes of this tour.
Syrian Cinema, A Cinema of Many a Paradox
The "paradox" of Syrian cinema, as director Omar Amiralay put it, is that so many of these state-financed pictures really are provocations--beautiful, strange, uncanny provocations. […] In short, we are looking at the work of a classic avant-garde: a congeries of artists living in internal exile, thrown back on their own resources and determined to stay true to their personal visions.
Stewart Klawans, The Nation
To Syrian film critics, historians of cinema and filmmakers alike, to speak of Syrian cinema, as a national cinema, smacks of hubris. Invariably, one is met with a retort that is some variation on "there is no Syrian cinema, there are only Syrian films and Syrian filmmakers." In Meyar al-Roumi's Un Cinéma Muet (A Silent Cinema, 2001), a documentary that interrogates the place relegated by the government to films and film production in contemporary social life in Syria, Syrian film critic Bandar Abdul-Hamid reiterates that claim. He speaks from the privileged position of first-hand, insider knowledge. If, objectively, Syrian cinema does not bear any of the attributes associated with a national cinema, an industry, or a sector in production of culture, when one views a significant selection of Syrian films from the past three decades, it is nonetheless very difficult to discount the cogent body of work produced by Syrian filmmakers as mere collection of "Syrian films and Syrian filmmakers." That body of work performs the role of a national repository of aspirations and sentiments, the record of lived experience, collective memory and the realm where the saga of collective national traumas and shared canons find expression, representation and signification. This is the first paradox.
Nothing about the structure of film production, distribution, dissemination or the social life afforded to these films suggests that there is an industry to speak of: film production is almost entirely controlled by the state, resources are scarce, and the output is as humble as one or two films per year. Efforts at international and regional distribution for exhibition and dissemination at best are dismal and mostly non-existent, the local network of movie theaters, whether in the capital or the rest of the country, is gravely dysfunctional. When Syrian films travel to film festivals worldwide, they almost always garner critical acclaim and awards, but all initiatives for their screening originate from outside their country. Inside their country, Syrian films are barely known. The national repository of aspirations and sentiments may be unabashedly genuine, piercing with honesty and enchanting with creativity, but they are remembered by a shy minority of stubborn cinephiles who have sought them out against the odds. This is the second paradox.
Amongst all fields of cultural production, Syrian cinema is the premier realm of artistic expression in contemporary Syria, where a lucid, intelligent and subversive critique of the state has forged a site for the manufacture of meaning and image. The remarkable feat accomplished by Syrian filmmakers is how they have succeeded in carving out an independent, critical and often subversive cinema under the sponsorship of a vigorous state ruled by a single party actively invested in suppressing dissent and coercing an official dogma. This is a state-sponsored cinema at the furthest possible remove from a cinema of propaganda or a cinema that serves to anchor and disseminate the tenets of the state's hegemony. This is the third paradox of Syrian cinema.
These three paradoxes are perceptible to those who begin to engage with Syrian cinema more closely. But they do not account for the surprise of those who come to encounter Syrian cinema for the first time and marvel at the cinematic gems, the plurality of genre, approach and voice, the mastery of the craft. Freed from the debilitating demands of the profit-generating creed of market-driven production, public funding has enabled Syrian cinema to revel as a medium of artistic expression in its own terms. What is often referred to as "Syrian cinema" effectively refers to the productions from the 1970s up to today and mostly means films of the "cinéma d'auteur" (produced from the 1980s until now). Thus is Syrian cinema a national cinema made up of profoundly subjective and independent-minded auteur films. This is the fourth paradox.
Debuting at New York's prestigious Lincoln Center, "Lens on Syria" has screened throughout North America in cities that include Chicago, Ottawa, Vancouver, Boston, San Francisco and Portland. The program has been celebrated by film critics nation-wide as a surprising and fresh program that has brought attention to an outstanding and little known film industry.
"Lens on Syria" includes works considered to be important landmarks in Arab auteur cinema (The Night), emblematic in their rendering of a theme, style or approach and those that have earned wide popular acclaim (Nights of the Jackals). The showcase provides a glimpse into the wide array of genres animating the production of film in Syria, from romantic comedies (At Our Listeners' Request and Verbal Letters) to social and political satire (Stars in Broad Daylight), historical epics (A Land for A Stranger), coming of age stories (Dreams of the City). It celebrates the work of internationally renowned directors like Mohammad Malas, Nabil Maleh, Oussama Mohammad, Abdellatif Abdul-Hamid, and Samir Zikra, as well as emerging talents, such as ‘Ammar el-Beik, Husam Chadat and Hisham el-Zouki. The selection of films also includes a homage to pioneer documentary filmmaker Omar Amiralay, who has had an enduring influence on Syrian and Arab cinema, as well as short documentary films and first works by filmmakers who later all turned to making fiction films.
Support for the programme has been generously provided by the Ousseimi Foundation (Switzerland) and the Department for Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) at Columbia University.
Special thanks to Abdellatif Abdul-Hamid, Atassi Gallery (Mona Atassi), Roula Roukbi, Hilary Clark, Mitra Abbaspour, Oussama Ghanam, Ram Devineni (Rattapallax), Ibrahim Salti and Nuha Nuwayri-Salti, Fanny Lesage (FEMIS), Hisham el-Zouki, Mohammad Malas, Intissar Safia, Mohammad el-Roumi, Meyar el-Roumi, Ammar el-Beik, Samir Zikra, Nabil Maleh, Mahmoud Abdel-Wahed and Raafat Charkas.
Extra special thanks to Maria Ousseimi al-Akhaoui, Orwa Nyrabia and Diana el-Jeiroudi (Proaction Film), Oussama Mohammad, Hala al-Abdallah Yacoub, and Omar Amiralay.