Ever since he produced his first film in 1970, Syrian auteur Mohamad Malas has had a huge impact on the canon of Arab political cinema. And yet, when he released Ladder to Damascus to mixed reviews on the festival rounds in late 2013, it was his first film in almost ten years.
Malas was born in Quneitra, the once Israeli-occupied village in Syria’s still-occupied Golan Heights. Employing experimental and sometimes surreal techniques, his work contains reoccurring themes of occupation and emancipation that also meditate on the human condition.
Ladder to Damascus, which is due for digital release on Vimeo later this year, is a dreamlike depiction of the current calamity in Syria. Like Malas’s other work, the film focuses on human desire as the driving force behind greater political demands. “In human sentiments, especially in oppressive countries, there isn’t anything but desire, cravings, wishes and dreams, so all my films have the idea of desire in them,” Malas told The Majalla on a sunny day in Dubai, using the same poetic, pensive language we have heard in the narration of so many of his films. He has a peppery grey beard and a full head of white hair; his soft tone adds to his air of wisdom.
Ladder to Damascus tells the story of Ghalia, an acting student who comes to Damascus and rents a room in a courtyard house filled with artists and philosophers from all over Syria. She befriends a young director, Fouad. But as their romance develops, so does the revolt beyond their doorstep.
Malas’s latest film contains very little imagery of the Syrian revolution itself, and it is this subtlety that sets it apart from other films made there since 2011. As the only major film to be produced inside Syria during the current turmoil, there were certain indirect modes of communication Malas felt he had to employ. It is here that the director’s experimental methods come into play. “In the shadow of an armed political conflict, our desires have no wings. There is only the language of violence, which kills desire and kills life. And for that, the cinema that I create is considered a cinema of waves and not a narrative cinema. In every character you see a story. I personally like stories that have no end; in Ladder to Damascus there are many stories without end,” Malas says.
This form of storytelling, though indirect, does not detract from its portrayal of universal truths about violence, oppression, and an appreciation in these situations for the small things in life. As Malas says: “The cinema I want to create is a cinematic dialogue between the image and the viewer. I give it to you as I see it, to create the truth that is in your heart.”
Documentary is another reoccurring theme in Malas’s storytelling. In Ladder to Damascus, cinematic references take the audience back and forth between imagination and reality. Movie posters, sound bites and footage included in the film from directors such as Sergei Parajanov, Abbas Kiarostami and Theo Angelopoulos, who all influenced Malas, present cinema as the medium through which everything can be imagined and expressed. Meanwhile, instances of the handheld camera producing a blue-tinted, shaky image convey the energy of danger and political urgency, emphasizing the need for documentation to reveal certain truths. “There is a closed circle between the image as documentation and the image’s narrative,” notes Malas. “What interests me is putting the personal narrative to the image in its age, its credibility and its documentation. To talk about the events and what is happening in Syria, there must be an awareness that this discussion and this image happened on its given date, in the given time and so on.”
The film portrays the anguish of the revolution not through scenes of protest and war, but through the frustrations of the artists trapped inside their house. Ladder to Damascus is a delicate film about the human condition, the need to dream and the role of hope in personal determination. As Malas concludes: “I don’t think that cinema is a way to politics, nor a political tool. Cinema is a letter from the sentiments of the characters in the film. It looks inside a person to transfer an idea or image to the viewer’s interior, to their sentiments as well.”