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British film tells a Syrian love story

‘A Syrian Love Story,' an acclaimed documentary by Sean McAllister, takes a unique look at the personal cost of the ongoing Syrian civil war away from the battlefield.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011, a slew of nonfiction films have been made not only to document the crimes committed by the Bashar al-Assad regime, but also to explore the myriad shades of an increasingly complicated conflict that is constantly oversimplified in the mainstream media. Some of the most notable of these documentaries include Talal Derki’s “Return to Homs,” Liwaa Yazji’s “Haunted,” Mohammed Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi’s “Our Terrible Country,” and Ossama Mohammed’s “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait.”

No film about this catastrophe, however, has managed to capture the public’s imagination like the British filmmaker Sean McAllister’s latest documentary, “A Syrian Love Story,” a searing, deeply felt study of the disintegrating marriage of two Syrian activists failing to cope with the unpredictable effects of the war. After winning the Grand Jury Award for best film at this year’s Sheffield International Documentary Festival, the British Film Institute-backed production met with rapturous acclaim upon its September release in the United Kingdom. It garnered glowing reviews from almost every publication in the country and is set for worldwide distribution. “A Syrian Love Story” could well be the quintessential document of the Syrian war to date.

The unexpected success of the film is the fruit of an arduous journey that saw McAllister follow Amer Dauod and Raghda Hassan, the couple at the heart of the story, and their sons for five years in Syria, Lebanon and France. McAllister is no stranger to the Middle East. His film “The Liberace of Baghdad” (2005) looks at post-war Iraq from the perspective of a pianist attempting to start a new and better life in the United States, and “The Reluctant Revolutionary” (2012) traces the Yemeni revolution through the eyes of a tour guide. McAllister’s relationship with Syria began in 2009, when the government invited a number of foreign journalists to sell the country as the next tourist hotspot.

McAllister’s interest in political prisoners led him to Amer, a devoted father and husband awaiting the release of his wife, who had been detained by the government. Amer and Raghda had met and fallen in love in prison, and after their release, they ventured to start a family without abandoning their political cause. Raghda was detained a second time for writing a book critical of Assad, leaving Amer to bear the brunt of raising their sons by himself.

Upon Raghda's return, their love does not initially appear to have waned, but when the family is forced into exile, first to Lebanon as the violence and carnage intensify, their marriage begins to fall apart. Raghda cannot escape the anguish of having had to leave Syria, while Amer, after the responsibility of raising their children alone for quite some time, simply craves a normal life. Raghda expresses her desire to return to Syria and continue fighting, but Amer is opposed to the idea. He soon takes a lover, whom Raghda subsequently discovers. Meanwhile, their sons are caught in the middle, distraught about their parents’ feuding and finding little solace in life outside Syria. “I hate the revolution,” their middle son says at one point.

“A Syrian Love Story” is not another nightmarish journey of an impoverished family fleeing the grip of the Islamic State. It also does not try to dissect the politics and motivations behind the war. McAllister’s intimate, patient film focuses instead on the emotional and psychological toll of the war on a middle-class family no different from the millions of others that found themselves caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. It is a story about a breakup, about a couple torn apart by a war that continues to haunt them. By the end of the film, Raghda and Amer are not only disillusioned by the revolution, but also by the love they once had for each other.

Unlike the making of most documentaries, no tangible plotline or concept guided McAllister in making “A Syrian Love Story.” “We had no idea how far from Syria the story would evolve when we first started making it,” producer Elhum Shakerifar told Al-Monitor. “The film and the family were constantly in the background as other projects came along and Sean continued to go back to Syria.”

Perhaps the most remarkable facet of the film is its rawness. The manner in which Amer and Raghda bare their souls in front of the camera was the result of the many months McAllister spent earning the family’s trust.

“For a long time, both Amer and Raghda presented themselves in a way that everyone does,” McAllister said. “But our skill is to get beyond that. I do this by making them see we are all a team, together, with the same motives. Once they accept you almost as a family member, you are in there sometimes invisible and other times as a participant.”

“I was exceedingly bothered by the camera at first because we, Syrians, are weary of surveillance, an upshot of living under oppression,” Raghda told Al-Monitor. “Soon, I grew to trust Sean, and the kids loved him. Sometimes when I felt agitated and vulnerable, I used to call him to visit and help me with my problems.”

The divisiveness that destroyed the couple’s marriage is the film's main theme, and through it, the audience experiences the real and untold consequences of this strife. “They both had different pressures in their daily lives, Amer with the children and Raghda in prison,” McAllister said. “Raghda couldn't see what Amer was doing for the children, as prison had affected her psychological health. I think they were no longer able to see the love, but always knew each other for who they really are.”

“I had trouble with the danger Raghda put herself in,” Amer told Al-Monitor. “My priority was the kids, and I believe they needed a mother and father. I put the kids first; Raghda put the revolution first. I was angry. She came back, but she had to follow her comrades. We had opinions that were opposing. I didn't want her to die and let her family down. I believe home is where you are in the moment, and in the moment you have to be safe.”

The success of “A Syrian Love Story” validated the filmmaker’s commitment to a project that many funders had passed on, highlighting the difficulty of trying to present a different type of narrative about what is happening in the Arab world in general and Syria in particular.

“We’ve had an amazing number of doors closed and negative responses to the film throughout the film’s production,” Shakerifar explained. “At first, Syria wasn’t on the map and wasn’t of interest. When it was suddenly of interest, we weren’t making the ‘right film.’ When we were preparing to release it and trying to plan press for the film, we were told there was ‘too much Syria’ in the papers, and I had a moment of despair only a few weeks ago thinking we wouldn’t manage to get coverage. So the combination of audience reaction and critical response has been incredible and absolutely overwhelming.

“Watching the film, you are a witness to a marriage breaking down and to painful moments of truth that will resonate with every person who has ever been in a relationship. I think that these elements are the humanity that people connect with; it's primarily because the family are living everyday, relatable human traumas that the film resonates, and it gathers greater meaning and momentum from the fact that it's against the backdrop of the situation in Syria rather than because it's a story about Syria.”

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