Ammar al-Beik: What a Strange Life...

Part one of the conversation

In his responses, Ammar al-Beik takes us on a journey on the autostrade of exile/nation (or what is called nation). A beautiful and harsh journey, thrilling and tiring, inspired and pure, starting from some past and not ending now (the journey hasn’t ended yet).

31 May 2024

Eyas al-Mokdad

Eyas al-Mokdad is a Syrian filmmaker, choreographer and dancer. He holds a master’s degree in Transmedia (Audiovisual arts) from the LUCA School of Arts in Brussels, as well as a bachelor’s degree in dramatic arts–ballet dance from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus and a master's in film from the KASK arts school in Ghent. Mokdad has worked on many performances and films as a dancer, choreographer and assistant director. He created his first film in 2003. He adopts experimentation as a methodology in dance and filmmaking.

Translated by: Alexa Firat

At times we find ourselves crossing Damascus streets in black and white, between the first photography studios -  Studio Hayak -  so that we may glance at a young boy staring into the eye of the camera in the same place that he will work for the next eleven years. Other times we find ourselves at the first demonstration in the heart of Suq al-Hamadiya where we heard the cry “freedom”, and a third time we found ourselves in Brussels or at the Venice film festival before bringing us to the cinema house of Shahbandar, and his first meeting with one of the founders of Syrian Cinema Nazih al-Shahbandar. 

In this way, coming and going, between here and there, we go with the creator of “The Sun’s Incubator” from one time period to another to discover with him the magic of cinema, the magic of cinematic speech, and most importantly the magic of a sincerity that knows no bounds and clarity radiating from his speech. As if it were light emanating from a camera’s gaze. We feel it around us, behind us, and perhaps in front of us, which allows us to read his cinematic project from within him. As if we are a part of this project, participants with him on this journey that he knew how to embroil us into the end.

All my films are produced and financed by me personally

I suggest that you start the zoom recording immediately. Zoom is my Aleppo cave...Eyas [al-Maqdad], you the cinema director and the director prodding my words, my friend, the dancer of Syria, the contemporary, the free, to whom I sent my voice and image last April 2022. 

Of course because of a great belief in the significance of our friendship, at this moment I add to these jam packed words lovingly. After you sent me the text, so I could look over my previous responses, which had been preceded at that time for the benefit of Syria Untold, we meet and talk to uncover an intertwining and divergent story that has never been told.  

You are the one who helped me and encouraged me to tell it. So, part of the excitement at the moment of our earlier meeting was knowing the interest in constructing a response that was 99%  balanced and polished, with heart and soul...thank you for the generosity of your confidence, for allowing me an opportunity to re-read and re-assess. 

Scrutinizing my spoken responses that were quite long at times, these revelations to you emerge from the interaction of souls. There’s nothing stopping me from placing some dots on letters. This is the desire to beautify the architecture of writing and showing it in its most beautiful garb. The magic of letters and word, unlike no other, and even the movement and separation of unspoken interludes during the writing of the final draft for publication. The speech of eyes and live voice on zoom is indispensable. I want to add that  one of my utmost priorities was to preserve your flow, the construction of story and narrativized speech, often transgressing Arabic grammar. For the speaker has a deep pulse as well. Don’t ever forget  that your film about the mother and daughter, images and memories, taught me and connected to me a lot. It’s a foundational and groundbreaking for (Syrian) cinema, possessing a mature persona, a persona of a modernist cinema that is born of an intellectual revolution preoccupying the country.  Genuinely formed with love and tears of martyrs, patience and faith in a more beautiful future, hopes that will materialize afterwards, and from the heart of your sensory vault, you will bring forth films that give expression to us and that carry us slowly and deliberately far, far away. 

Thank you dear Damashqi-Hurani-Bruksali (Damascus-al-Hurani-Brussels). Let’s start anew, go back to the beginning of the sprawl.

Perhaps now I actually started to record.

Do you know why, dear friend, I asked that our conversation would be recorded both visually and orally? One of the most important things in life is to have an archive you can go back to, to see where you were, where you started to explore the morrow. Archives are a matter of great significance. There’s absolutely nothing more important. The archive of sound and image is the memory that we build upon in future Times (al-azmana) inside the world of time (al-waqt).

The best thing I brought with me from al-Sham to here in exile as an immigrant is “the house” (al-bayt), my family’s house, “the house” is my violated house, “the house” is Damascus, “the house” is Syria… houses archived on hard drives. A repository jam packed with sounds, images, symbols. Yes, Iyas, symbols. Our lives are a boundless collection of symbols. We are grandchildren of Sumerians and cuneiform writing. 

When I go back to the films you made, I feel that the shots of your film are the archive of Ammar al-Beik. 


There are so many ways in which a film can be made, and the value of those films are perhaps momentary at the time of its making. But there are films that carry an additional value. Not all films can transform into a document and source. There are films and there are cinematic documents. Ammar al-Beik, I miss you a lot…

The feeling is mutual. 

You are a dear friend. According to me and those of my generation of Syrian independent cineastes your cinematic experience is of extreme importance. When we started thinking about creating our first films outside the orderly productions that abound in Syria, we knew there was someone making films whose name is Ammar al-Beik. Your existence as an independent filmmaker in Damascus made the idea of crafting our first films something that was possible to achieve. We started with home cameras to make those films and continue in that way to this day. 

Many things come to mind at this moment. When you mentioned the influence of my experience on you, and how you encouraged each other to take the step and use home cameras to create your first films, I remembered that we didn’t have a video camera at home that could be used outdoors. My uncle Abu Muhammad’s camera would have for sure  drawn attention from the police and secret police (al-mukhabarat) if used outside the house. Of course, this was not desirable. The informants were out selling lottery tickets, Marlboros, little dolls, were those who wore camouflage , and filled the streets of Damascus in anxiety-inducing numbers. My uncle’s camera was a Sony Trinicon HVC and Portable Betamax 2000.

It was practically impossible as well to use my grandfather’s that appeared in my film Beautiful Syria (2015, Suriya al-halwa) because using it is very confusing and expensive. It’s a Paillard Bolex H-16 Reflex 8/16 mm. You know, Iyas, I intentionally am writing the names and numbers of the cameras for the sake of those young filmmakers who look into these matters. I think it's an important one. 

The first camera that I acquired was the Panasonic HS movie nv-m3000. I bought it from a wedding photographer named Abu Ibrahim. He wanted to upgrade his equipment. Abu Ibrahin was one of the characters in my film River of Gold (Nahr al-dhahab). It’s a documentary on the Barada River. I bought the camera from him for 30,000 LS in installments. What amounts to $600 US at the time. I paid him 5,000 LS every month. This was in the 1990s. I made my first film on that camera, Light Harvest (1995, Hasad al-daw’) in the old Maysalun mill located inside the old wall at Bab al-Salam. A mill with huge wooden turbines that rotated with the force of the Barada river. It was transformed after that into a mill that runs on diesel. Unfortunately,  because of the Ministry of Tourism of the oppressive ”non-regime” this important place was turned into a restaurant after it was invaded like most of the neighborhoods in the Old City of Damascus and underwent systematic invasions by mafias loyal to the republican palace and those entangled with war merchants and “the nouveau blessed.”

At this stage, I got to know a religious man. We became friends. He was called Father Najib Shankaji, one of the religious men of Salesians at the Don Bosco Church in the al-Talyani neighborhood. He would tell me about the years he spent in Italy where he studied sound engineering. From what I remember, he studied in Rome. We would also talk about religious sciences, spirituality and cinema. He was truly a good person and open-hearted towards others. I was so happy when he would entrust me with 35 mm film and the church’s Nikon 401 photography camera, so I could take pictures of celebrations and kids’ first communions. I worked for free because of my firm conviction that working with the church should be free and voluntary. The professional photographers waited for these occasions and Christian holidays to make money from families of middling income. The photo would cost about 75 LS. The family would suffice with two photos at the most because at that time it cost about 300 LS to prepare three meals. I noticed that what I was doing created stress among the professional photographers aligned with the church. According to one of them, I was “taking work and revenue away from them.”

On the occasion of my second photography exhibit that opened in 1999 at the German Goethe Institute in al-Sha’lan [neighborhood], the theme of the exhibit was black and white photos. I had printed them in my room at my family’s house at the time. I created a narrative of 25 images that began with the walls of the Don Bosco Church that carry a Catholic Italian sensibility and arrived at symbolism of the walls of Old Damascus - its sky, grape vines and trellis, and verdant trees.

I remember well the faces of those at the exhibition, first and foremost Dr. Sabah Qabbani who encouraged me at that time and gave me a boost of confidence. Dr. Sabah was one of the founders of photographic arts in Syria, during the days of al-Amir Yahya al-Shahabi and the musicians Husni al-Hariri and Dr. Marwan al-Muslimani.

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The following story is important. Father Najib  needed to buy a used video camera for occasions at the church. So, I offered him my Panasonic camera after I had used it to film the mill. He enthusiastically agreed. Selling the camera to the priest allowed me to recoup 30,000 LS in one shot, and with that amount, allowed me to edit my first film (Harvesting Light) with my friend and one of the wedding photographers Amar al-Ayaq who transformed a room under the stairs of his family’s house on Aleppo Street into an editing room. This was the first and most splendid editing room. I remember how we worked on editing for 24 continuous hours on a VHS machine connected to a simple mixer. With that equipment, we finished the first copy of this film. I recall that the heads of the video got really really hot after working for so many continuous hours, and that made a rainbow specter appear on the final material of the film, forcing us to stop working that night.

At my one and only visit to the master Nazih al-Shahbandar’s house, which came about very quickly, I didn’t have a camera or recording device with me to record any sound or image with him. It was a last minute visit for the benefit of my friend Michel from Studio Hayak who bought an old lens - Petzval Holmes, Booth & Hayden 1858 from Nazih. It was a very large copper lens and stored in an exhibition closet at Studio Hayak. “For exhibit only” was written under the lens.

The visit happened in the afternoon, at lunchtime. His house was situated on the road leading to my family’s house on Baghdad St. just before Tahrir Square. I entered al-Shahbandar’s castle, the house of a cineaste (بيت شيخ الكار). I saw beautiful chaos. I remember an old-style camera holder, a big and beautiful 35mm film camera. A beautiful and antique place. Books and notebooks scattered all over the place. A voice singing, emanating out of a large radio in the kitchen near a cooking pot. The honorable Nazih was warming up his lunch: zucchini, tomato and olive oil. I will never in my life forget this delectable food. I will never forget how I ate my plate with the appetite of a laborer in a workshop, and not just any workshop, but the office and house of the first Syrian cinematographic pioneer setting sound to image on film with a device he created himself.  The film was Light and Darkness. The original copy was burned in the exposure lab of one of the studios in Lebanon. There are now only a few positive meters  left that show some shots. This master, who was in his eighties at the time, said to me after I peppered him with so many questions filled with awe, love and respect for cinema and its technical aspects, with a warm, nostalgic, and hoarse voice, a hoarseness of one who knows with certainty, “When you make something, you do it because you want to make it. You are going to be a bright film director, Ammar. Your questions are relevant and perceptive, may God grant you success. Don’t despair, ever. And don’t give up. This work is not an easy job.”

How beautiful were those moments at  the house of this dignified sage. At that time, al-Shahbandar was trying to construct a special saw that would allow him to cut a glass cube in order to fabricate a two-sided convex lens and create a three-dimensional film projector. Al-Shahbandar was working hard at it, and frequented Hayak Photography Studio to make use of the Master Michel Hayek’s expertise in this field. 

One day I was walking in the middle of the street from al-Qashla neighborhood on the Bab Tuma road toward Bab al-Salam where my family’s house is located and noticed that for the first time the large door which was usually locked shut was open. An old stone building, tall and assuming. The building was situated across from the al-Azriya neighborhood. Master Nabih had told me previously about the studio, but he died before showing me it. That day I discovered a place filled with a perceptible strange positive energy. There was a big truck (Isuzu) at the entrance of the space which was being filled with the rubble and debris of the place and to be thrown in a dump outside Damascus. I looked around and thought it was an opportunity to photograph inside the building. I entered to find that the place was actually  al-Shahbandar’s cinema and studio. Wowza! I’m  in the middle of “A Damascene Cinema Paradiso” clamoring with dust, memories and a captivating beauty. And now, this paradise has been transformed by the methodical touristic invasion on Damascus into a restaurant. Such a terrible loss! Instead of turning the place into a museum of cinema something like “Cinema La Ciutat” in the south of France, the first cinema in the history of cinema created by the Lumiere Brothers in 1899, it’s turned into a restaurant!

Al-Shahbandar’s cinema and studio was a spacious site - the ceilings of the building were no less than ten meters high. In this place one could see all the tools and minutiae that come to symbolize cinema. As such, I went out to find a small pickup, a Japanese Suzuki. The driver  was extremely kind and helped me carry anything that was left there, left there like debris. This small Suzuki could move through the narrow passageways of Damascus with ease. There it goes, the pick up truck, carrying Ammar al-Beik and a load of scattered beauty from Cinema Paradiso to the al-Beik house in Bab al-Salam. The driver lifted my spirits, joking around with me at the entrance of the studio. From his humble perspective I was saving them from finishing the job, but for me, I was collecting the immense significance of this place and the city. My one dearest possession at these moments was my Nokia 5200 phone. I started taking pictures that I still have to this day. It distresses me to recall what Nazih al-Shahbandar said to me once before he died, “I know that after my death all my things from the workshop will be tossed out.” He was quite certain of that. And this is what happened, and I bore witness to the extent of that. The photographs are evidence of this sad ending. They got rid of everything. Proof of that is I was able to get the original flyers for Light and Darkness. These were printed in two-tone brown and beige. I also got a lot of semi-damaged things, symbolic reminders of the place: a cube-like wooden chair, a small, dilapidated desk, lamps and old books and some ornate alabaster decorative objects that must have fallen from the ceiling, a strip of old wallpaper.

 Sadness and happiness at the same time. I’m happy one day with the stuff that stayed in Damascus, and happier with the pictures that document these painful and unique moments. My greatest joy, dear friend, is that I have in my possession a photograph of me and the esteemed and honorable master. I asked one of the good photographers who worked for the Damascene nightclubs to take a picture of me with Nazih al-Shahbandar during a chance meeting at Studio Hayak. At that moment, I wanted to take a picture of history. 

Habib was one of the most important clients of the studio. He was always a bit hesitant, adjusting his camera and flashes. He was a professional photographer, and really loved his work. I asked Habib for this picture, confident in his expertise. It was a quick photo with a flash camera (Nikon 601). The captivating light of this small camera had captured me previously in this same room when my family had the first picture of me in my life taken at Studio Hayek when I was four months old. 

In the picture that Habib took of me with Master Nazih, I had placed my hand on his shoulder. I still remember the touch of his shirt. It was woven from threads that have a slight feathery roughness to them. I’ve posted these photos with Nazih al-Shahbandar a few times on Instagram, my default memoir. 

I made an appointment to visit Master Nazih in order to check on his health. I went in the company of my girlfriend at the time, carrying a bouquet of flowers. At the door of his house, I was greeted by his neighbor who said to me: “May he rest in peace, Nazih has passed.” I was so sad, and returned home carrying the bouquet of flowers feeling deeply pained and broken. I lost an important man in my life. A spring of positive energy and someone of such noble history. 

Let me tell you about Studio Hayak, the place in which I met the master (shaykh al-kar) Nazih al-Shahbandar and many Syrian photographers and cineastes. It was at that place I felt that I was hit by the first thunderbolt that changed what changed in my life. There is a segment at the end of the film The Sun’s Incubator (Hadana al-shams), if you remember, the segment in which a baby in an incubator appears. This is Sufiya Shams, my daughter, who had just been born only minutes before. At that moment she was looking at the lens. They say that a baby at that age isn’t able to see very clearly, but that they sense light. But, in my view, Sufiya Shams was looking at the lens directly. If you go back to the film you’ll see her looking. At that moment of filming, she was maybe ten minutes old, or a few more, (a lens looking at a lens). How beautiful is life!

At Studio Hayak, which is considered one of the oldest five photography studios in Damascus (live photography and postcards), I worked there for almost 11 continuous years, with only one break for my travels to South America in 1996 to study cinema in Chile. During my first five years at the studio I dusted and swept and prepared coffee and tea for clients. During these first years, I didn’t ask for any monetary compensation for my work. I was too embarrassed, thinking I didn’t deserve it. For me, the wage I earned was life experience and knowledge. 

Often, I would walk from my house to the studio because I didn’t have three lira to ride the microbus from Bab Touma to the Health Ministry stop. One day, I discovered a roofed area at the studio. There I found a collection of correspondence between Armenian photographers, written in Armenian, and a lot of stamps. In the past, the world of photographers was a highly organized world. I feel that the production of memory of Damascus can be measured in a big way through portraiture of people (Studio Azad, Studio Hayek, Studio Karbis, Studio Barda, Studio al-Harayasi), each of these places having a beautiful story.

By coincidence, I discovered that the stamp printed on the back of my photograph that was taken of me when I was four months old, was one of Studio Hayak’s stamps. The first portrait. I was naked in the photo. My mother’s hand stretched out to support my tender succulent body. I don’t know who the photographer was because the studio in those days had a cadre working around the clock. At their head was Baron Hayak, the founder of the place. Everyone worked to prepare the photos of the people who were lined up along the sidewalk across from the restaurant Al-Ris and climbing up to the first floor of the Syrian Airlines building. The personal and artistic photos taken in the studio were distributed at night to that daily crowd of people. My picture was taken in one of the studio’s rooms. The room where I would subsequently spend eleven years reading about cinema, literature and philosophy. There were many fleeting and beautiful love stories. I learned how to dust very well. I wrote receipts for cameras brought in for repairs. I learned the meaning of details, precision, pursuit, insistence. I’m sure that when I was four months old I could make out the photographer’s flash. I’m sure I saw the photographer. His lens. The image says all that, dear Eyas. 

The image is of a baby baffled at that moment. And there begins the complex visual chemical composite of our life. It’s a subject both of us return to in this conversation. Sight is of great importance. The word sight (al-mar`a)  or audio-visual  (al-sama‘-basri) , a compound word, is, as a concept, more sensorial than cinema. Cinema is in harmony with the range of arts. But “audio-visual”, it's something that starts in the mother’s womb, I think. The bright light approaches the mother’s belly during pregnancy, transforming the space of the fetus into a reddish space. The assembly of pulse and coexistence, mixing with the sounds of the outside world. That is “the audio-visual,” the pulsing heat. I think that I was afflicted by the light’s touch when the photo was taken. My first personal photo. I like to believe that. At Studio Hayak, I got the first pulse. 

What year were you born? 

December 17, 1972. Add four months to it according to the studio’s stamp on the back of the photo. 

And this was in 1973?

Yes, March 1973. My mother had put a special necklace around my neck in this photo, a tradition followed by most families in Syria (for males) - my son is male. Later, in March 2011, I took a picture of Sufiya to match mine, and is right next to mine, putting that same necklace around her neck. So now in her personal life records she has a film about the Syrian revolution, The Sun’s Incubator, and this photo. She has the choice to love what I made or she can make her own film, perhaps, to critique her father, and to narrate the story that she wants. Sufiya Shams, my daughter, is in a visual record that documents the beginning of the revolution in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria. The film was the first film shown at the Venice international film festival, September 2011. The film represents me and represents my desire to support the people seeking to be liberated from the shackles of Arab dictators. I dedicated the film in the final credits to the martyrs of freedom: Mohammad al-Bouazizi, Khalid Said, and Hamza al-Khatib. In this document, i.e. the film, we see a shot of a young man climbing up an electric pole in one of the streets in the villages around eastern al-Ghouta in Damascus. There is also under the TV stand a book by the artist John Baldessari (Pure Beauty) that transmutes the concept of the photographic image to a purely philosophical aesthetic concept. All of these oppositions exist with Hamza and Sufiya.

In the introduction to your film The Sun’s Incubator you wrote, you take an excerpt from a book of observations on cinema: “The future of cinema depends on descendants of isolated youth who will make their films with their very last penny, without allowing the material routines of the profession to stand in their way.” The mention of isolation in that sentence points to the philosophical concept of isolation; meaning intellectual opposition to  a dominant and widespread intellectual trend. You are detached from that trend so that you can possess your own differing ideas. I sense in that with which you opened your film, the philosophical side, the individual side and the side of struggle of Ammar al-Beik’s cinema. Before 2011, you had produced a number of works (They Were Here, Harvesting Light, Samiya, I’m the One Who Carries Flowers to Her Grave). But with The Sun’s Incubator, I sense that here you have crystallized the essence that Ammar sees of independent film and its creation. Before we go deep into all these subjects, I want you to tell me about Ammar al-Beik the Damascene. Tell me about that city as fertile ground for childhood and audio-visual memory. 

One of the fertile grounds of my childhood in Damascus is the open space surrounding the pool of water at the grand Umayyad mosque. It was where people collected, a big space for running, a space for the biggest pigeons in Damascus to practice flying.  A space for me to discover that I lived in the heart of a triangular pyramidal space. A Roman temple completely integrated and connected to the long market - Suq al-Hamadiya - by a line of parallel Roman columns for a few hundred meters. All that tells you that the Romans traversed there like many earlier civilizations. The Romans left us an architectural ruin that would allow following generations to enter that temple to contemplate, irrespective if it was a synagogue, church or mosque. The hidden energy at that pool was the stinging power of the bamboo cane that the mosque guard carried, and with which he would ensnare our bodies when my friends and I would take advantage of swimming in the big pool. I would run carefully from the whiz of the cane so that my wet body wouldn’t slip on the marble. When you leave the gate of the grand mosque you find yourself suddenly between hundreds of pigeons who respond and maneuver to your movements. The scenario becomes a mix of the flutter of wings and boys running from the mosque attendant. 

In the market outside of the mosque was a place I would buy used school books in elementary and middle school. We would buy the books there because we didn’t have the 14 LS necessary to buy new school books. In the books, I would find precious graphic gifts, like finding the memoirs of the former owner drawn on the margins of the book - symbols, drawings, faces, and sex sometimes - next to more caricatures on top of the picture of the illegal leader Hafez al-Asad. Those are the sites of my childhood and its fertile ground. On the left of the main gate to the mosque on March 15, 2011 all of Damascus screamed in unison with Marwa al-Ghamyan the word “freedom”. Next to her, according to the link, a security officer was standing wearing a neutral colored jacket trying to blend in. He wanted to forbid her from saying that word over and over again, “freedom, freedom, freedom.” Marwa was a young woman with a beautiful face, filled with the potential energy of Damascus. She yelled out as loud as she could: Behold! The peaceful revolution has begun and it’s your turn, Doctor. 

The absolutism of her call represented to me the beginning of the peaceful revolution. Hafez al-Asad would lead prayers at the Umayyad mosque on official occasions, choosing the place in the heart of the capital Damascus for that. That’s nothing but a signifier of his complete dominion over Syria. 

I want to connect this conversation of ours with the conversations I’ve done with other Syrian artists on the subject of Syrian cinema. Pushing aside the political position of the Syrian regime or what’s happened the past 11 years culturally, socially, and politically. Cinema has always been belligerent, even under the most violent regimes. This is something we can see across numerous global cinematic experiences. The filmmaker can’t be a true filmmaker in my view, if s/he isn’t belligerent with life, throwing out essential questions about it. I want to look at that cinema liberated from the political position that I hold against the regime that developed the National Film Institute (NFO) as a part of its authoritarian framework. After the revolution, a desire grew in many people to cut the relationship with the past. To attack it and reject it completely. 

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Every film made in Syria before 2011- since “Light and Darkness” or “Under the Damascus Sky'' are important films and mark an era whether they are produced privately or funded by the NFO - supported, and with connections or not - the films of Nihad Qala’i,  Ghawar al-Tusha, and Abu Antar are important.  B-rated, racy films are important. The films of ‘Abd al-Latif  Abd al-Hamid and those of Jude Said are important. Military films and those for the holidays are important. The al-Atassi films of Fairuz are important. Of course we aren’t dealing with creative categories, but there is a  great importance to the accumulation and history of sound and image for the human perspective. The film Island of Women (Jazirat al-nisa’) by Faysal al-Yasiri is important, a geographical study. Al-Yazirli by Qays al-Zubaydi is important. The Dupes by Tawfiq Salih is important, and all the  films that were made inside Syria during the past ten years are important because they are documents of history, human productions. What I mean is that those directors shaped their films with an artist’s individual sensitivity and a point of view that intersects with the security system (the films resemble their makers by necessity and inevitably like literature and poetry). There are films that affect our conscience, make a difference on an intellectual level. Directors presenting important experiences, confrontations from inside the system and the bureaucracy of its one and only institution. Most were forbidden from doing all that they wanted, but and because of that, it was possible for some of them to produce truly innovative cinema, like the films of Omar Amiralay, Nabil al-Malih, Riyad Shaya, Rimun Batrus, Muhammad Malas, Usama Muhammad and Samir Dhikra. The names are many. The films take on importance from the level of art, innovation and the independence of thought of their creators. All of them were working on films that resembled them, that expressed themselves and their views. Here is where independent innovative work lurks, produced in an institute subjugated by security control. 

Despite the censor’s authority, the imposition of its authority and ideology, they have created films that talk about fathers, mothers, cities, concerns, hopes, memories, love. Films that amass the country’s history. This makes me think about the godfather of independent cinema Muhammad al-Rumi who made the independent and belligerent film Blue Grey (Azraq ramadi) outside the organization. He is a great lesson in the history of Syrian cinema. It for sure that all of these films and the great pains exerted in the history of Syrian cinema paved the way for the presence of Syrian documentary works of cinematic art like To Sama,a film by Waad al-Khatib, on the level of world cinema, a truly revolutionary work that deserved to win an Oscar and all the praise it has received. 

Marwan Haddad, Muhammad al-Ahmad, Najah al-Attar are also important according to the regime’s intellectual system ideologically based in libertarian fables. The importance of these filmmakers in regards to the regime is that they were censors, preventing, cancelling, and prohibiting many from having opportunities, and that is what shaped the characteristics of this pastime. Obstructing freedom of thought in the country. Our role today is to re-fragment and analyze all of that to understand what happened to the tenets in the development of our society. You and I talk today in a philosophical and analytical way about our life, because a neurotic soldier like Hafez al-Asad was a part of it. Hafez al-Asad overpowered us, and created within us a profound and deep-rooted fear. Hafez is the dirt merchant, (“Buying and selling whatever he can get his hands on”). Liberation from fear requires recognition, and if it weren’t for that then we wouldn’t be having this conversation on cinema and the human between Brussels and Marseille. In this way, all Syrian films are individual and independent on an intellectual level, and all of them are important, and the importance lies under the pile of viewpoints on life. Every person has a point of view that helps you to get to know that person profoundly, to get to know the environment that shaped them. All experiences are important to shaping the logic accordingly. Every person that produces a film should be thanked regardless of whether or not the film pleased you, whether they are someone who supports or opposes, and regardless of the artistic value of the film. These films are expressions of their creators. Seductive films resemble seduction, military films resemble the military, and the films of the republican castle resemble it!

By the way, Iyas, I want to mention an incident that happened in 2012. I was one of the signers of the petition to block the participation of Jude Said’s film in the Dubai film festival. Many people signed it. The festival organizers accepted the petition, and the film was blocked. It’s an appropriate moment and opportunity to apologize for “freedom of expression” (I made a human mistake) despite the director’s great support for Bashar al-Asad and his military. But, on a human level, the film should have participated, so that we see, and that the world sees the point of view that had enabled one family’s rule over Syria for 50 years. Dividing it and selling it to the Iranians and Russians under the pretext of nation, the struggle and defense of Syrians. Half of Syrians today are deprived at the very least of their rights to healthcare, nutrition, education, and a secure life, while the other half of Syrians have been cruelly forced to leave the country. I apologize for freedom of expression. 

Ammar, did you graduate from the College of Fine Arts in Damascus?

I applied to the College of Fine Arts after getting my baccalaureate degree. I drew for five hours straight for the entrance exam. During the exam while I was totally engrossed in drawing, the Dean of the college, Khalid al-Mezz, who knew who would get in, passed by me and patted my shoulder encouragingly, saying “Excellent, finish the drawing.” By saying that he made me feel that I was doing well. We were drawing a still life of vegetables and the head of Socrates, the great philosopher. I remember absolutely that I didn’t leave my chair for the five hours. I was overwhelmed with zeal. The exam was in the lecture hall of the College of Civil Engineering in Baramkeh. When the results were published, I went to the College of Arts at Tahrir Square to find my name among those accepted for the college. The guard of the college understood what was going on and came to me with a knowing smile. “Uncle,” he said, “You need to have connections to get into this place.” I replied that I drew well according to the Dean of the college. He responded: “I get it. Your work is passing, but you still need strong connections.” Then he asked me: “Where are you from?”  I said: “From Damascus...” The man smiled and shook his head and said to me that “I would have to find someone who could get me an exception from the Minister of Higher Education.” When he said that, I knew it was absurd that I would be accepted into the College of Fine Arts. Does it make sense that all the major artists had connections to get into the College?! I never met one friend who graduated from the College and admitted that he used a connection to get in. They all said that they got in by their talent only. Should they be believed? At any rate, my lack of acceptance straightened me out!

I reluctantly enrolled in the Institute of Commerce and Business Administration. I did it as a concession to my mother’s wishes, and the relative weakness of my grades. I wanted to go to college for the sake of my mother. So, I started my days at the Institute in the neighborhood of al-Mezzeh, Western Villas. The area was packed with officers and the secret service. The most influential people in the country live there; Bahjat Sulayman and his children, Asif Shawkat, and many others. Essentially the scum of society. The area’s also packed with police, some of whom sit in tiny little kiosks at the entrance of buildings where officers and important officials live. There are a lot of Mercedes cars, of the “al-shabiha” kind [regime-aligned militia-types] with blacked-out windows. An awful negative energy.

I began to attend classes on accounting and business administration. Completely unrelated to me. At one of these lectures, the instructor asked me to come up to the big wooden board to solve the problem written on it. I said I didn’t have a solution to the problem. She asked me if I had done the homework, and of course I replied in the negative. Then she said to me sharply: “Get out and close the door behind you. Don’t show your face here until the end of the semester.”

I knew that I wasn’t committed as a student at the institute. But all the students there know that this lecturer was “supported,” a prop. She was married to someone in the security apparatus. I went immediately to student affairs, and submitted a request to cancel my registration at Damascus University. The Syrian mukhabarat investigated me because of that. I was called into the department of student affairs, where an officer of the mukhabarat asked me why I officially withdrew from the university. Perhaps the reason for the question was that they thought I was planning to leave the country in the nineties. 

Over and over my mother would say: “Oh no, what about the 1,200 SL I paid for the suit we had to buy.” At the time, university students wore standardized blue clothes. Of course, we weren’t committed to it. 

When I got my Baccalaurete degree, my mother gifted me a photography camera [Zenit TTL]. After a few months, it broke, so I took it to Studio Hayak where I had started to go all the time. This was before I left my spot at the university. I didn’t want the repair to happen too quickly, I was enjoying my visits there so much. They  would ask me to wait, so I would spend time watching whoever was working, and would page through the many photography magazines at the studio greedily (Photo Answer, Practical Photography, etc.). I continued in  this way for several months waiting for my camera to be repaired. I wasn’t happy at that time with my studies in business administration and was sad that I wasn’t able to study at the College of Fine Arts. 

Michel, the owner of the studio, would ask me to wait three-four hours in the hopes of fixing my camera, until one day he said to me: Do you see this small broken cogwheel in your camera? I’m sure I have one like it, but I just can’t find it. I’ve tried to make it, but they’ve all failed .” He brought me to a side room filled with camera parts, saying: “the cogwheel that we need to fix your camera is here in this room between the chaos of these old photography machines. Ammar, try to find that piece.” I answered him enthusiastically that I would do it. After almost two hours I was able to find what we needed. I quickly went to him, happily carrying that small part. After that incident, Michel asked me what I was doing with my life. I told him I was a university student. He said: “Do you want to work with me?” I said, yes. I ended up working at the studio for 11 years. In 1996, I traveled to Chile. It was my first trip out of Syria. Then to London to study cinema. I brought with me a copy of the film, unfinished in production at the time, it was only 22 minutes long. 

My trip lasted for about a month and a half. It wasn’t as successful as I had intended. Santiago was a hard place for me. The language - Spanish - and the way of life. Before I left, I thought I would be going to a place that resembled Cuba. But, I didn’t find that. It’s a city that resembles to a large degree some neighborhoods of New York City. Modern and expensive. On my way back, I visited London looking for a way to stay. But, it was also expensive there and to be accepted by a university one needed financial support that was too much for me to handle. I went back to Syria to work in order to pay for that first trip of my life abroad. 

I told you all these stories, Eyas, about the images that captivated me when I was a child at Studio Hayak, the story of university, of work at the studio later on...All of these stories I believe are a part of forming my cinematic destiny! 


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