Within the major artistic developments in the Arab world during the past decade, the genre of experimental video documentary stands out as one of the most important, and one that has received much international attention. Among the reasons for this development are improved accessibility of digital technology as well as the surfacing of new transnational media, such as satellite TV stations and the internet, with their stress on investigative journalism. As a result, a new visual culture has developed.
The early years of the new millennium saw the rise of artists and video makers who, in their works, investigated historical, socio-cultural and socio-political issues, such as the consequences of colonialism, experiences of war and occupation, as well as questions of gender, identity and memory. Characteristic of this artistic practice is a constant search for new forms of expression and representation, the prominence of the video maker in his/her work, very much in the tradition of “auteur” cinema and a high degree of innovative spirit. It includes a wide range of aesthetic forms, often incorporating historical texts and narratives, found footage and photography.
In Syria, pioneers of this genre were Ammar Al-Beik and Meyar Al-Roumi. A prominent feature of their early works was a deep concern with the relationship between society and the individual. Al-Roumi’s autobiographical video, Un cinéma muet (2001), is a piece about the difficulties of filmmaking and cultural production in Syria. Upon his return to Syria to carry out his graduation project for the film school in Paris, Al-Roumi was not granted the necessary permission to shoot. Frustrated by this experience, he decided to abandon his original project and produce a film about filmmaking in Syria and the obstacles filmmakers face. He talked to a number of well-known Syrian film makers, such as Oussama Mohammad and Omar Amiralay, as well as other intellectuals about their frustrations of working in a country where “a filmmaker spends his time doing anything but his work as a filmmaker,” as one interviewee remarked.
Ammar Al-Beik’s, They Were Here (2000), is a reflective homage in visually powerful images to the old steam engine plant in Damascus and its former workers. In a succession of black and white shots, the piece documents this space of former industrial optimism, while the people who used to work there talk about their simple, everyday concerns. In its concern with industrial archaeology and labor, this short piece harks back to an earlier cinema of social realism as represented by the early documentaries of Omar Amiralay, the “father of Syrian documentary filmmaking.” In another work, Clapper (2003), Al-Beik explores the religious diversity of the country and its potential to influence cross-religious dialogue. Al-Beik followed the daily work of the secluded community of monks at Deir Mar Musa Monastery, who, under the leadership of the Italian Brother Paolo, have dedicated their lives to promoting a Christian-Muslim dialogue. Filmed with a subtle distance to the protagonists, the film questions the manipulative character of any authoritarian community, while balancing the idealism of the monks with the realities of contemporary life.
Since these early years, the Syrian video movement has grown considerably, and every year it has seen new works by an increasing number of artists and filmmakers. The critical investigation of gender roles is the predominant subject of Diana El-Jeiroudi’s work. Her short documentary, The Pot (2005), questions the concept of motherhood as the ultimate fulfilment of female existence. El-Jeiroudi lets young women from different backgrounds recount how they view the traditional role of women as mothers and how pregnancy affected society’s perception of them as human beings. Kept in a raw style reminiscent of home videos—a style that refrains from using elaborate effects and is often used in an effort to surmount the barriers between film and audience—The Pot surprises by the frankness of its statements, and succeeds in showing a much more diverse picture of Syrian and Arab womanhood than normally represented by mainstream media, both Western and Arab.
Stone Bird (2006) by Hazem Alhamwi tells the story of a man who has become insane due to an unsolvable emotional and moral conflict. After having discovered the affair between his wife and his father, Abu Hajar seems to have chosen madness rather than the more common reaction of rage to cope with the situation. This well-researched work succeeds in addressing a number of serious issues of traditional Syrian society in a personal and unobtrusive way. The spectator cannot help feeling that Abu Hajar is far more human than those rigid rules that have forced him into madness, a condition that appears more like a deliberate choice and a way to escape from the unbearable obligation to respond violently. The withdrawal of an individual from society is also central in Reem Ghazzi’s Crack (2007). In just four minutes, the film tells the tragic story of a man whose bitter feelings of injustice lead him to “close the door” on society. Carefully filmed with well-chosen angles, Ghazzi’s piece is a fine example of an “auteur” aspect in documentary filmmaking, as practiced by Syrian filmmakers of the older generation.
All of the mentioned works bear witness to the potential of young Syrian video documentarians, who combine social commitment with a solid theoretical basis. While following contemporary trends in experimental documentary filmmaking, these young filmmakers and artists also inscribe themselves within the tradition of Syrian auteur cinema and its strong aspect of social critique.
Charlotte Bank – Independent curator, researcher and writer living and working between Berlin and Damascus. Her work focuses on contemporary cultural and artistic practices in the Arab world and diasporic communities. Ms. Bank publishes regularly in international media, both on- and off-line.