The collection Insights into Syrian Cinema was conceived of as a companion catalogue to a showcase of Syrian cinema that traversed major US cities beginning in 2003. The concept of a book became obvious when the curator and editor Rasha Salti recognized the dearth of sources on Syrian cinema in English. The selection of writings was made in conjunction with the filmmakers showcased in the festival. The text was never intended to be a study of Syrian cinema writ larg, but rather by way of discursive versatility it stands true to its title, to be insightful. Like the seventh art itself, the work is rich with narratives, memories, and reflections and prefers to raise questions or even insinuate them, rather than draw conclusions as to the state of affairs of Syrian cinema. Likewise, its story ends well before the one of the Syrian revolution began, as well as some of the cinematic precursors to it like the Abou Naddara Collective.
The text is divided in two sections, the first consists of critical and journalistic essays. Rasha Salti’s opens with a critical introduction to 20th century Syrian cinema, while the others provide a framework for thinking about and engaging with contemporary works. Notably, Oussama Ghanam makes an acute observation “[that Syrian cinema] of the last quarter century is essentially an auteur cinema, borne of the particular circumstance of being produced by the state and only barely disseminated through a relatively non-existent network of distribution….In other words, it has lived without an audience” (70). This remark resonates and underscores the second section of the text, that is the personal narratives, conversations, poetics and other aesthetic interventions by Syrian filmmakers.
The discrete contributions of the filmmakers provides a framework for excavating the poetics of Syrian cinema. We read how certain personal experiences have shaped their “lenses” and personal integrity, such as a military officer’s slap on a child’s face, a grandmother’s white skin or a Pasolini film. Likewise, the filmmakers’ voices transcend the written word to create an intimacy that suggests the making of their own cinematic processes. At the same time collaboration and community has a profound effect on filmmakers. Perhaps given the opportunity to direct a work only once every 14 years or so, not only is every shot, light, and sound plotted out in detail, but also the filmmakers, while waiting for the censors to release the script and funding from the only agency in Syria that produces film, the National Film Organization (NFO), often work on each others’ films as cinematographers, actors, screenwriters, etc. Another disclosure of this community is (for some) the transition from initial support to disillusionment with the NFO, an organization that some had hoped would help create a strong, independent and viable Syrian cinema, an idea (and ideology) that affected other cultural sectors as well, i.e. literature, earnestly nourished by socialist ideals.
To keep in mind that the text was published as a companion to a film festival, then its logic is revealed. Reading the various contributions provides a lure to pursue these films in particular, but Syrian films in general. As Syrian cinema circulates more and more via film festivals, satellite and other technologies, some of the contributors lament the potential for an end to the idea of Syrian cinema as the vocabulary of this indigenous cinema gives way to global forces. Whether that may be the case or not, this collection is an invaluable source to understanding not only Syrian cinema of a certain era, but Syrian cultural productions overall.
[The original version of this review was published by the Syrian Studies Association in 2007]
Alexa Firat is assistant professor of Arabic at Temple University where she teaches courses on Arabic literature and cinema, and also language. She publishes scholarly research on Syrian Literature and cultural productions in particular, the Levant in general. Firat is also a literary translator.