In Syria’s new cinema, the 'off screen' as a phantasmic place

A Q&A with film curator Davide Oberto

What unites a new generation of Syrian filmmakers could be, paradoxically, what they choose not to film.

24 July 2020

This interview is part of a series on Syrian cinema, funded by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

For SyriaUntold’s cinema reporting series, we have explored the world of Syrian filmmaking through the eyes of Syrian and foreign directors, journalists and academics.

Maya Milani and Enrico De Angelis turn here to Davide Oberto, a film curator of TFFdoc, the documentary section at the Torino Film Festival, and former co-director of Doclisboa, a documentary film festival in Lisbon. 

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For Oberto, much of the value of new Syrian cinema is its awareness of the complexity of narrating a war through images—images of brutality that a younger generation of directors often leave intentionally off the screen. The images are always present, like a mute “stone guest,” in Oberto’s words, but never to be directly looked at. 

This conversation, originally in Italian, has been edited for flow. 

Are there common features or a style that recent Syrian films in general share, or should they be considered isolated works? Can this new Syrian cinema be seen as a phenomenon with its own identity? 

As co-director of Doclisboa and curator of TFFdoc, I had the opportunity to support and show many films. Films by directors such as Sara Fattahi, Orwa al-Mokdad, Ziad Kalthoum, Avo Kaprealian and Ammar al-Beik. 

I developed friendships with all of them, as well as intense intellectual exchanges that strengthened over the years⁠—even with those I could never meet in person, such as Orwa al-Mokdad. 

Even if their films present different styles at the formal level, it was clear to me since the beginning that there was something common between all of them. It was clear to me that in those films there was something more than the necessity to tell about the brutality of repression and war. 

All of them were very aware that they were using a specific language: cinema. That language forced them into a constant reflection on which types of images they had to use in order to film what they wanted to tell. 

And paradoxically, the common trait that defines the unique experience of young Syrian cinema is the construction of the off screen as a phantasmic space inhabited by the images that the Syrian directors prefer to keep out of view. 

There is another element that enables us to talk about young Syrian cinema as an experience with its own identity: the close link with the cinema tout-court and in particular with the Syrian cinema that preceded it. The cinema, to be clear, by Omar Amiralay, Mohamed Malas, Ossama Mohammed, etc. 

Let's take two recent films: Coma by Sara Fattahi and Immortal Sergeant by Ziad Kalthoum. 

Fattahi's film is a sort of kammerspiel [a form of theater set in small spaces and played by few characters] that reminds us of Cassavetes' cinema. [Editor’s note: John Cassavetes was an American actor and independent filmmaker known for character-driven films.] Three women—a daughter, a mother and a grandmother—live in their apartment in Damascus while outside the war rages. The only echoes coming from outside [the screen] are the voices from a famous Syrian musalsal [TV drama series], which was probably filmed in Ghouta. 

Ziad Kalthoum, on the other hand, tells of his experience as assistant director and soldier during the filming of the last movie by Mohammad Malas. Also in this film, the war is the convitato di pietra [“stone guest” in Italian: a character who is invisible, mute, but whose presence cannot be ignored] and materializes only through the deafening noise of airstrikes. 

I think this tension between inside and out the frame, mediated by a cinematic awareness that can rarely be found in other groups of the same generation, is what makes the experience of new Syrian cinema quite unique. 

Is there any parallel to other exile cinema experiences, ones that resemble this new Syrian cinema in terms of quantity of production, international success and relationship with the original public?

In my opinion there is no other cinema experience in exile that can be compared to the Syrian new cinema, at least recently. 

The trait that makes it unique is the extreme cinephilia of this group of directors. And this is what took us by surprise. The Western public often holds an Orientalist perspective on these realities. These directors, women and men, know [European] cinema very well. They know how to use it. 

At the same time, they come from a specific cinema tradition, the Syrian one, that we barely know. They overwhelmed us with a new language. 

And yet we can understand their cinema, despite the fact that it comes to us as something unexpected. It is unexpected only because of our ignorance of that reality and our misplaced sense of superiority as the original inventors of cinema. 

How do you see the relationship between these Syrian documentary films and a wider documentary production worldwide? Is there something specific to this experience? Where are there any common trends?

I think that the documentaries realized by young Syrian directors force us to reflect seriously about the role of the image in the so-called cinéma du réel [“cinema of the real”], an expression that by the way has no meaning for me.  

These directors were confronted with a surplus of images, most of them characterized by violent content, which were already circulating all over the world. With an extreme awareness, they decided what made sense to show or not to show. 

Each one did it differently from the other, but each image that composites their films is the fruit of this radical reflection.  

When we screened The Immortal Sergeant in Torino, we also screened Silvered Water [a 2014 film by Syrian directors Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan]. Ziad Kalthoum and Ossama Mohammed, the two directors, established a dialogue in the cinema. 

Mohammed's film is Syria's version of Germania, Year Zero [a 1948 Italian film set in Allied-occupied Germany]. Kalthoum's film is [the story of] a simple soldier in searching for his own language without forgetting his forebears. Between those two films a wonderful tension emerged, that each documentary should create in order to finally make the relationship with the Real  finally cinematic. 

In our tired and old Western world we forgot that tension. 

Why, in your opinion, were these films so critically successful in European festivals? What is it that distinguishes them from other cinematic experiences?  

This is a question I struggle to answer. Perhaps because we should first distinguish the type of success the films had and in which festivals. 

For example, Cannes considered For Sama (by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts) to be a great Syrian film. It is a product that was thought of ad hoc for a pseudo-cultivated Western world that is ready to be impressed by an Orient which is “barbaric” but also capable of producing good emotions. 

Other festivals, like Locarno, Rotterdam or Torino, gave space to a radically different Syrian cinema, which was capable of perturbing the cinema tout-court

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