On the same night as A Syrian Love Story by Sean McAllister, was screened for festival-goers in his hometown of Hull in East Yorkshire, the award-winning documentary was aired on BBC4 (repeated tonight on BBC1) through the Storyville series. As someone remarked, during and after, as viewers took to Twitter to respond to the film: ‘It doesn’t matter how or where you see A Syrian Love Story, you just have to see it.’
Sean McAllister is a film-maker from Hull who after an uninspiring start, has gone on to make highly-respected and uncompromising films, that capture real life through a lens of social justice. It was ‘The Liberace of Baghdad‘, the 2005 film, set in post-Saddam era Iraq, about a pianist torn between his dream for a better future and his family, which brought his work to a wider audience. Since then he has made films in Japan, Yemen and in Britain including in 2013, Peas and Pay Packets – set here in Hull – for the BBC’s Living with Poverty series.
A Syrian Love Story doesn’t shy away from showing all aspects of the family’s experience, it contains features and qualities that are are not always appealing and attractive. It is testament to the trust Sean built up with the family over a number of years, that he was allowed not only to see, but to film, some of the very tense interactions.
There is a moment after Raghda’s release from prison, when Amer’s patience runs out and we see him turn on his wife. Who wouldn’t lose their temper cooped up day after day, night after night, far from their home country, with three children and a wife.
The name ‘Raghda’ means ‘pleasant‘ or ‘happy life‘ in Arabic, but she is clearly suffering post traumatic stress, after witnessing torture and killings in the prison. You could say that Amer has displayed the patience of a saint: by keeping the family together: protecting them from unimaginable terror. I am quite sure there are many other families fleeing from Syria, that have been completely ripped apart from each other.
With these timely BBC screenings, A Syrian Love Story has the chance to be seen by millions. This film conveys the realities of the refugee experience, far better than the endless images of families crossing borders into Hungary, or packing out trains in Munich station. In the west these events play out without really touching us: another explosion in a foreign town, protests on the streets, activists taken prisoner, food lines attacked, aid convoys targeted… the list goes on. For the Syrians it is a very real and daily barrage of trauma, the worst of which is glimpsed in the film, through graphic Arabic news reports.
There are moments in Sean’s film that resonate so deeply and underline the sheer brutality of President Assad’s regime, as he systematically goes about destroying the lives of generations of children. One such moment comes from little Bob, Amer and Raghda’s youngest, a precocious wide-eyed boy who is trying to understand why, all the bad things are happening.
‘He’s an animal, he crushed all of Syria.’
And for saying that, if Bob were to ever go back to Syria while Assad was still in power, he would likely end up in prison, or worse, tortured and killed. Sean himself was captured by the Syrian secret police and taken prisoner during the making of this film, upon his release he gave an interview to Channel 4 News, where he described prisoners being ‘treated like animals‘ in the Syrian dungeons.
The dead bodies and wanton destruction, disturbing as they are, don’t prove as painful to watch, as seeing, the family bonds and relationships beginning to breakdown, inside that pressure cooker environment.
You care deeply that little Bob, thick black ponytail bouncing on top of his head, is going to be scarred for life, having been exposed to such horror. Can Raghda ever resign herself to not being part of the struggle; fighting alongside her comrades, for the freedom of the Syrian people? Then there’s the sensitive middle boy, who we first meet as a child but now as a young man, has also watched Syria fall. He has had to look on helplessly: you can’t help but wonder what is really going on behind those eyes.
This film should be shown to everyone, in order to convey the realities of the refugee crisis. Every day we hear about a boat load in the Med, another tragedy as a body is discovered in the back of a lorry. It is a damning indictment on the 21st Century mind that we have become anaesthetised to the pain and suffering of others – those reports of a bomb blast in Damascus or Aleppo just wash over us and fade into an endless background news noise.
A Syrian Love Story deserves the same prominence as the image that for at least a day or two, stopped the world in its tracks and has come to symbolise the desperate plight of the exodus fleeing atrocities trying to get to Europe.
A Syrian Love Story: an important film; a film of our time which provides rare insight into the refugee experience, is repeated again on BBC1 at 10.35pm tonight. And on the iPlayer A Syrian Love Story for one month.