Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, Sean McAllister’s A Syrian Love Story is another remarkable chapter in the English director’s journalistic forays into the Middle East’s hottest hot spots. After risking life and limb in war-torn Iraq (The Liberace of Baghdad) and Yemen during the Arab Spring massacres (The Reluctant Revolutionary), this film finds him in Syria during the revolution. Close in spirit to the intimate portraiture of Liberace, it traces the disintegration of a marriage and its effect on the couple’s children with heart-breaking candor. Shot over the course of four years against the backdrop of Middle East upheaval and a displaced family, it also furnishes a timely look behind the cover stories on Europe’s immigration drama, offering a glimpse into the anguishing reasons for leaving one’s homeland. The many plot twists should abet festival word-of-mouth and let it coast to more pubcasters like the BBC, Swedish and Danish TV, who co-produced.
Amer and Raghda first met when they were political prisoners in Syria in the mid-’90s. He was a Palestinian freedom fighter and she a left-wing Syrian activist. Now, because of a book she has published about their prison love story, Raghda is back in jail and Amer desperate to get her out. This appears to be his motivation — at least initially — in talking so openly to the filmmaker about his furious opposition to president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. When the revolution breaks out in the spring of 2011, it gives him more impetus to demand Raghda’s freedom, and with the U.S. State Department pushing for the release of political prisoners, she suddenly returns home.
An adroit balance between the personal and the political.
As she basks in the warmth of her family and Amer’s love and loyalty, her story seems to have reached a happy ending — but that doesn’t take into account the fact that she and he are two very different people, caught in the vise of history.
Here again McAllister plays the role of the (mostly) off-screen reporter who is so thoroughly embedded in the life of his subjects that he seems like a member of the family. Though at first the story is told through Amer’s sad eyes and his halting but poetic English, Raghda eventually is given a voice and emerges as an extraordinary woman in her own right, torn — as Amer perceptively remarks — between being Che Guevara and a mother. The climate of fear and danger reaches its peak when McAllister himself is briefly arrested by Syrian security forces. His camera is seized with the compromising interviews on it, and the family is forced to flee to Lebanon. But this is just the beginning of their odyssey, which is as much emotional as it is geographic. The final decisions they make, while offering closure to the film, are impossible to judge.
At various times, Amer finds himself in charge of their four sons, who range from angry and love-sick teenagers to the two younger boys, who will play a major role in the film. Little Bob, whose independence is flagged by liking to wear his hair long, is a firebrand who misses his mom but is washed along by forces he can’t control. His intensely bright 10-year-old brother Kaka becomes politically radicalized as the years roll by.
As always, McAllister’s filming is fast and light, and the quality of the video photography (he is his own cameraman) is less important than the passion that goes into the story-telling. As befits the introspective marital subject, the style here is quieter than before but still swift-moving, thanks to an injection of energetic jump cuts by editor Matthew Scholes.
Production companies: 10Ft Films for BFI, BBC Storyville in association with SVT Sveriges Television, DR Danish Broadcast Corp.
Cast: Amer Daoud, Raghda Hassan
Director, screenwriter: Sean McAllister
Producers: Elhum Shakerifar, Sean McAllister
Executive producers: Hoshang Waziri, Lizzie Francke, Nick Fraser, Kate Townsend, Axel Arno, Mette Hoffmann Meyer
Director of photography: Sean McAllister
Editor: Matthew Scholes
Music: Terence Dunn
World sales: 10Ft Films
No rating, 76 minutes