The audience of Syrian cinema in Germany: Between production and restrictions

What does the Syrian cinema look like in the Federal Republic of Germany and who is its audience?


21 January 2020

Dellair Youssef

Dellair Youssef is a Syrian journalist, writer and filmmaker. He has directed several films, including The Princes of the Bees, Exile, Banyas: The Beginnings and Clothesline. He is also the author of Tales of this Time, which was published in 2014, and Good morning Lovelies, published in 2020. Youssef lives in Berlin.

This article is part of a dossier in partnership between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy's North Africa, West Asia page, exploring the emerging post-2011 Syrian cinema; its politics, production challenges, censorship, viewership, and where it may be heading next.

Syrian cinema has reached new levels and spaces after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in the spring of 2011, and gained a new large audience interested in Syria and its crisis. This interest led to the screening of Syrian films in places previously unknown to Syrian cinema; from Upper Egyptian cafes and Berlin bars to global festivals, passing by international movie theatres and festivals, Syrian cinema won three times the Grand Prize for best documentary at the Sundance festival (for "Return to Homs" by Talal Derki in 2014, "The Last Men in Aleppo" by Firas Fayyad in 2017 and "Of Fathers and Sons" by Derki in 2018), as well as two nominations for the Academy Award for best documentary film.

In this article, I examine the Syrian cinema in the Federal Republic of Germany, exploring the difficulties it faces, the restrictions imposed on it, and the public reception. For this article, I have reached out to filmmakers and Syrians living in Germany, in order to grasp all the details and to draw the picture as accurately as possible.

Reception

It is impossible to evaluate the reception and popularity of Syrian cinema in Germany due to the lack of any opinion poll on the subject. But in general we can affirm that, in the case of films screened in cinemas, there are several groups who are watching Syrian cinema. These are usually people interested in the Syrian issue or students of cinema or political studies, in addition to those who are simply interested in these movies. Films shown on television reach larger groups of the German population, as some television channels, such as ARTE or ZDF, screened Syrian films dubbed into German, which confirms the interest of the German audience and film exhibitors in Syrian issues and Syrian cinema.

It is hard for various films to reach German movie theatres, as the Syrian films must first meet several conditions in order to be screened, particularly in famous cinemas and festivals. The capabilities of most Syrian directors are limited and do not amount to the strength of the script and the efforts of the director. Often, the film does not match the criteria of the festivals, movie theatres and television channels.

Audience at Alfilm, Arabic film festival in Berlin, 2013. Photo courtesy of Alfilm Berlin Facebook page.

In general, Syrian film presence is still weak, despite the selection of several movies in festivals and cinemas and the increase in screenings and production in recent years. But I claim in this article that a German audience exist and is looking to view Syrian films, driven by its desire to learn more about Syria and the events happening there, and its curiosity to understand Syrian society, especially after the increase in numbers of Syrians refugees in Germany.

Production and screenings in Germany

The German film scene is rich and diverse and has a large cinema production. But this does not prevent the existence of requirements and restrictions on screened films. These restrictions are usually linked to the production and distribution conditions. In order for a film to reach different platforms, it must go through many stages of production and marketing, depending on the requirements of the producer and distributor.

In order to circumvent these requirements, which are difficult to achieve for most Syrian films, many Syrian filmmakers resort to private screenings that loosen up technical and legal conditions. The shortcoming of these private showings is the limited audience, usually formed of those interested in the Syrian issue or those in the social circles of the filmmakers.

As for the various high-quality productions that target large festivals, some Syrian films have reached these large festivals such as the Berlinale festival, one of the oldest and most important film festivals in the world. Other Syrian films were screened at the Leipzig Documentary Film Festival, one of the world’s oldest documentary film festivals.

In general, we cannot speak of a deliberate exclusion of Syrian filmmakers in Germany, which is a general impression spread in circles interested in Syrian cinema in Germany. Indeed, the struggles to access the German market allow this kind of discussion. The production difficulties and the bureaucracy complicate the situation. This led German institutions such as the Berlin University of the Arts (UDK) to allocate classes for those interested in filmmaking to bridge the gap and encourage the production of Syrian cinema in Germany.

Our concern is not the quality of Syrian films, but the process of producing these films and their way to movie theatres and festivals. It is important to recall one of the traditional observations addressed to non-professional filmmakers that states: each festival has its own criteria in line with its own program, and films are accepted or rejected according to these criteria.

Festivals in Germany have different standards for accepting Syrian films, and these vary depending on its size and history. In addition to the technical conditions that are imposed on the film before its acceptance, there are “unwritten” or customary terms among filmmakers. For example, documentary film festivals have recently tended to attach importance to the topic. They can partially loosen their artistic standards in order to give a chance for directors from countries like Syria, where it is difficult to produce a film with high quality equipment. Usually, the festival audience is wide; the programmers are thus obliged to give the primary attention to a main issue and its particularity. This deliberation is internal, and often privately discussed.

A still from Talal Derki's 2018 film, 'Of Fathers and Sons.'

Each festival has its own conditions, which could share some similarities with other festivals, and may limit the screening of certain films. But it is allegedly said in cinema circles that each film has a platform, and those who look for the right platform, will find it.

I thus argue that there are no preconditions on film subjects. There are no problematic films for the producers, in terms of content. Even anti-Semitic films can be produced—and this is the red line usually not to be crossed in Germany because of the country’s history with anti-Semitism during the Nazi period. We are talking here of cases where a German producer is able to set the terms of production, but not on the subject.

The process of producing films is a professional process just like in any other profession. It examines the profit and loss conditions of the film’s screening. The German producer or the owner of private movie theatres and those responsible for the festivals’ film selection decide which films to accept or refuse depending on the study of the film’s profit and loss made by the film producer or distributor. Due to the richness of the film market in Germany, some producers tend to choose humanistic films; others prefer asylum or homosexuality issues, or films directly related to the Syrian conflict, etc.

Syrian film audience

The audience of Syrian cinema varies depending on the platforms and the quality of its content. For example, the Arab Film Festival in Tübingen attracts thousands of German viewers every year. This audience is interested in Syrian cinema, and which was visible in Syrian director Ziad Kalthoum’s film “Taste of Cement” winning the audience award at the festival’s 2017 edition.

Al Film Arab Film Festival Berlin, 2012. Photo courtesy of Al Film Berlin Facebook page.

However, this audience remains one that is interested in the festival, usually being an elitist audience, attracted to films coming from distant countries, and might enter the cinema to watch a film randomly, without targeting a particular one. There is also a professional audience that travels long distances to watch a specific movie, and those in general are filmmakers or involved in film activities.

The question of the Syrian audience watching Syrian films in Germany remains generally complex. In addressing this question, we must examine the situation in Syria, and observe the interest in cinema and its presence there, as well as the cinema culture in the country of origin. Perhaps we should recall the limited number of cinemas and the few Syrian films produced in Syria during the decades under Assad’s rule, and the repression it imposed on culture in general and cinema in particular.

This does not negate the existence of an interested group financially able to access cinemas, though many Syrians in Germany are of low-income. It should be noted that there are individual initiatives to screen films at cheaper prices compared to the usual cinema ticket prices, as well as the existence of supportive initiatives for refugees, which work to show different films in asylum centers.

*Translated by Diana Abbany

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