Syriarama: A brief history of the Syrian Film Industry

An article published in Impressions, the British Airways inflight magazine.  

You never heard of Syrian cinema? Well, you don’t have to worry about that, for it doesn’t exactly mean that you are an ignoramus. You are simply out of touch with the goings-on of international film festivals, especially those of the former Eastern Block countries where Syrian films have won more than their fair share of awards throughout the years.

Cinema became known in Syria in 1908 when people in Damascus had the opportunity to watch some cartoons in some of the traditional coffeehouses. The show moved to Aleppo in 1912.

Actual production, however, did not begin until 1928 when the company Haramon produced the first Syrian movie called The Innocent (dir. Ayyoub Badri), a silent crime film which found a large enough audience to inspire more people to join in the production venture.

The first Syrian film to tackle social causes did not emerge until 1932 (Under the Sky of Damascus, dir. Isma’eel Anzour) but when it came, it signaled the beginning of a new trend, that of “committed movies.”

Another movie that proved to be a trend-setter was one titled The Call of Duty (1937) by the director of the first Syrian film mentioned above. The movie dealt with the national revolutions taking place in Palestine against the British Mandate.

The Syrian movie industry developed substantially after Syria won its independence in 1946. Films now began to focus on strengthening national identity and attracting wider audiences, which led to the emergence of yet another trend, namely that of  musicals. But this particular trend was somewhat short-lived; it simply required more technical skills and equipment than was available in the country at the time.

Syria managed to produce more than 80 films in the period between the late twenties to the early seventies. Yet, most of this production remained purely commercial and lost between European and American influences. Until the early seventies then, Syrian cinema remained devoid of a specific Syrian identity. There is no film you can point to and say: “Now this is a typical Syrian movie.”

One exception came in the real on entertainment with the films starring the comic duo Durayd and Nihad who took their theatre success to the movies in 1961 and managed to attract large audiences. Still, the movies presented by Durayd and Nihad were always purely commercial. This trend was not broken until the duo itself finally dissolved in the late seventies with Durayd (full name Durayd Lahham) going his separate way. It was at this stage that Mr. Lahham embarked on a series of productions culminating in his film The Borders that, while still comic in nature, had a serious message to deliver (Arabs of the World Unite, that sort of thing).

The most important development in the history of the Syrian film Industry was the Baath Revolution in 1963 which led to the establishment of the National Foundation for Cinema, and to the gradual death of private sector films, with the exception of the productions of Mr. Lahham.

The 1963 Revolution, which was in reality a glorified and mostly bloodless coup, proved, to say the least, as controversial in its cinematic contributions as it was in its socioeconomic and political ones. The Corrective Movement in 1970, which was yet another glorified coup (this time occurring within the ranks of the Baath Party itself bringing late President Hafiz al-Assad to power) made things even more controversial: the Syrian Film Industry both improved and died as a result of these developments.

Is this some kind of a Sufi riddle? some might wonder at this stage. Well, perhaps it is, though laced with some “necessary” totalitarian influences. These were the times for that, you know, these were the times.

The socialist coups of the 60s and 70s, then, put an end, of sorts, to crass commercialism substituting it with crass intellectualism. So, as no American movie could have an unhappy ending, no French film could pass without a glimpse of at least one bare-breasted woman, and no German film could be devoid of sadomasochistic elements, no Syrian film, from then on, could go without a message. With this, Syrian films finally acquired a firm and specific character.

This made the Syrian movies quite technically ready for participation in the International Film Festivals, organized by the Socialist Block that is, and for winning a few of their awards. But, it lost them their audiences, both internal and external.

The private sector, which introduced Cinema to Syria and Syria to the Cinema, all but disappeared. But, seeing that the private sector could not, except in rare cases, rise above commercialism, this may not have been such a loss. On the other hand, seeing that Syrian state productions consistently failed to attract large audiences and having imposed a certain “necessary” ideological framework on the these productions, the establishment of the National Foundation for Cinema in Syria may not have been such a gain.

No matter, in the period between 1969 and the present, still socialist by local standards I am afraid, Syria managed to produce more than 40 “distinguished” feature films and around 350 documentaries focusing mostly on social and political issues and the achievements of the Rightly Guided Lion (al-Assad stands for Lion in Arabic).

The Arab-Israeli Struggle and Syria’s fight for independence from the French received understandably much attention in Syrian cinema.  Kafar Qasim in 1974 (dir. Burhan ‘Alawiyyah) dealt with the massacre of the population of the Palestinian village of Kafir Qasim by the Israeli army, The Opposite Direction (1976, dir. Marwan Haddad), The Red, The White and The Black (1979, dir. Basheer Safiyyeh) and The Half Meter Incident (1981, dir. Sameer Zikra) focused on the  feeling of frustration and despair emanating from the 1967 Arab defeat by Israel. While, The Sun on a Cloudy Day (1985, dir. Muhammad Shaheen) and City Dreams (1984, dir. Muhammad Malas) dealt with the French occupation and the psychological ramifications thereof as far as the Syrian people are concerned.

A new breed of directors appeared on the scene in the nineties. These benefited from the global changes, including such development as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and strayed a little from the ideological strictures of the previous three decades. Their films, however, remained “festival films,” and rarely attracted large audiences.

A couple of notable exceptions in this regard were the early films of one Abdullateef Abdulhameed, whose first two films with their light comic touch and rural focus, struck a cord with Syrian people from all backgrounds.

Still, Mr. Abdulhameed could not but surrender himself to a different tune in his last two movies with light their romantic almost spiritual touches. Indeed, this seems to be a trend in Syria these days affecting not only its Cinema, but also its TV dramas and theater productions. There must always be an element of fantasy and sur-reality embedded in the work somehow, else you’re bound to make someone in the government or religious hierarchy angry. That is still not the kind of a risk a filmmaker would want to take at this stage.

With that we might assert that the Syrian Film Industry is still looking for an identity. But that should not be too surprising really, for the entire country is.