Risk-Takers: Middle Eastern filmmakers defy danger to capture the region's turmoil

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Twice jailed and tortured, Syrian filmmaker Firas Fayyad was more committed than ever to freedom of speech; the many other artists and journalists imprisoned alongside him only strengthened his resolve. “If we’re the enemy of the people, we know we’re doing our job well,” he says.

He was also more committed than ever to tell the story—bear witness to the miseries—of his fellow countrymen under the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. Recording crimes against humanity, his film would serve as a document for posterity.

Outside his jail cell—three stories below ground, where he was blindfolded—an estimated 15 to 20 bombs rained down daily on the people of Aleppo, murdering hundreds, trapping hundreds more under disintegrating buildings. Some were lucky enough to die immediately; others suffocated as broken bodies beneath the rubble. (From 2011 to the present, 332,000 to 475,000 Syrians have been killed.)

Fayyad wanted to tell the world another story, too: that of the White Helmets, volunteer first responders who, instead of running away from the unspeakable wretchedness and mind-boggling danger, ran towards it as the city burned, doing everything possible and then some to save lives. Their selfless bravery and humanitarianism was (is) stunning. “They made me believe in humanity again,” says Fayyad.

His Last Men in Aleppo, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, tells a multi-layered Syrian narrative, a complex amalgam of terror, courage, endurance and resilience.

Throughout the war-torn Middle East—violently factionalized from within and in many countries simultaneously assaulted from outside forces—filmmakers from the region are attempting to let the world know what’s happening. They face major challenges along the way, not least just trying to survive. For many of those I interviewed, being caught with camera in hand could literally mean death.

Fayyad was keenly aware of the risk, yet his own fear seemed irrelevant, he says. He was further bolstered by the selflessness of the White Helmets, their families and the many international journalists and cameramen who came onboard to help.

Other filmmakers I interviewed voiced similar sentiments while grappling with an array of issues: philosophical, political and aesthetic, not to mention the whole sticky netherworld of ethnic identity politics.

What are you saying to whom? And how do you say it most authentically without betraying your culture in general or your loved ones in particular? Or must truth-telling always trump tribalism and the risk of confirming stereotypes held by the outside world, assuming you even get your film seen in the outside world?

When I first started this story several months ago, I had no idea how difficult it would be. I contacted dozens of filmmakers throughout the region, and very few responded. Those who did speak with me speculated that fear for themselves or their families might be the reason other filmmakers remained silent.

But even among those who were open to being interviewed, they wondered what my “intentions” were. One filmmaker was concerned that my story might be “political.”  When I assured them that I was only interested in learning what it was like to make films in their countries—those “banned” by President Trump—they seemed to accept that premise, though clearly the implications of what they said would resonate culturally and politically. All spoke English, some better than others.

Trust

A repeated theme among the documentarians was how hard it was for them to establish trust with their subjects (not unlike my experience with them). It was a potential roadblock for almost all the filmmakers interviewed.

The White Helmets didn’t want to appear in front of the camera at all, believing it would be misconstrued as “showing off,” Fayyad says. And they were especially concerned that the cameras would impede their work. But his argument that the film would bear witness to history prevailed. In the end, the White Helmets and their families were as galvanized to tell their story as he was, if not more so.

His insider status helped forge a bond. He grew up in Aleppo and knew the local traditions and language. As an insider, he also knew the difference between reality and performance. He understood what was worth filming.

Still, when someone was killed or, worse, could not be saved after being rescued, these tragedies brought filming to a halt. But the community rallied and the filming continued despite the ongoing air strikes. Life went on and the film evolved.

The everydayness of life became a centerpiece of Fayyad’s film—from housewives shopping in the marketplace to families attending weddings. “These people trying to survive in the most dangerous city in the world love life, their country, and want to stay in their homes if they could,” he notes. “It’s important for the world to see that side of the story, especially compared with the one-sided reporting, depicting only death and disaster, all of it repetitive and anonymous, flashing across TV screens night after night.”

That said, the film is violent and graphic, and some scenes may seem gratuitously gruesome. Fayyad knows it’s a judgment call. How much authenticity can an audience tolerate before walking out or perhaps worse, sitting through it numbed and indifferent?

Describing himself as an artist who uses the tools of a journalist—for him the two are blended—Fayyad veers on the side of authenticity, even if that costs him some theatregoers.

“Yes, of course I was concerned about the public reaction to the film, but I have a larger responsibility to show the truth even if it’s ugly, even if it’s painful,” he contend. “These events must be recorded accurately. If my main characters and their children are victims of war and witness these horrors, I have an obligation to show the world what they’re living with and seeing day after day.”

A New Cinematic Language

Syrian filmmaker Ziad Kalthoum (The Immortal Sergeant, Taste of Cement) does not agree. “There’s no shortage of bloody footage out there and I don’t do it,” he says. “Showing severed hands and legs for what? That’s not art. I’m not a journalist recording a situation as it’s going on.”

He struggles with many of the same issues as Fayyad but defines himself as an artist first and foremost and believes the theatre of war and its horrors can be conveyed most vividly onscreen through a new cinematic language.

Undoubtedly, his two aforementioned documentaries boast striking visual imagery and especially haunting soundtracks that work on literal and metaphorical levels. Each film—zeroing in on the victims of the Syrian crisis in a ravaged homeland and as refugees in Lebanon, respectively—is symmetrical in theme and structure. Cyclical events and duality are central in both works.

In The Immortal Sergeant, Kalthoum is the title character, evolving not unlike a fictional figure. The viewer doesn’t see his face, only his shadow that he surreptitiously photographs with his handheld cellphone. It is simply too dangerous to be seen with a camera. It’s aesthetics informed by necessity.

The film takes place during the course of one day, starting with the piercing ring of an alarm clock. Kalthoum’s ghost-like silhouette walks (the sound of footsteps resonating) towards the barracks at one of the most treacherous fronts in Syria. Later, the spectral soldier moves through the bombarded alleyways blanketed with such graffiti as “People Want al-Assad Forever.” We “see” him working with yet another director who is attempting with great difficulty to shoot a fictional feature set in Syria.

The Immortal Sergeant depicts a Syria of parallel yet interrelated universes: the military life, the everyday life; the documentary, the fictional; the sergeant, the artist. All of it has the feel of a surreal nightmare. The film’s title is a mocking commentary on the slogan “The Immortal Leader,” referencing to the late dictator (and the current Assad’s father).

In the end, Kalthoum admits he can no longer go through the motions of supporting the regime. To what degree the filming experience—and what he witnessed in so doing—clarified his views if not redefined them is arguable, but he abandoned his military post.

As a deserter he would be shot on sight if he were caught in Syria today, he says matter-of-factly. For eight months he hid out in Damascus, editing his film and dependent on friends for food and other supplies. Ultimately, he ran away to Beirut, where the Syrian crisis had morphed into something else entirely, not as bone-chillingly life-threatening, but awful nonetheless.

“In Beirut I’d wake up to the sound of relentless construction and was struck by how similar it was to the noises of war,” he says. “Much of the construction in Beirut is being done by Syrian refugees, who have lived with these noises for 50 years: 25 years of war, 25 years of construction, often at the same time. Their homes in Syria are being destroyed while they are building homes for someone else in Lebanon. In both places the taste of cement is in their mouths.”

The Taste of Cement, his documentary about the virtual enslavement of Syrian construction workers in Beirut, is without dialogue, though a voiceover serves as narrator. The sound of construction—and it does evoke bombardment—is front and center. So are the wide-angle shots of the gleaming city, and the close-ups of the weathered and emotionally battered faces of the Syrian workers who live in the basement of the construction site and are not allowed to be on the streets after 7 p.m.

“It took me a year to get a permit to be allowed to do any filming at all, and I told them my purpose was to show the impressive rebuilding that was taking place in Beirut,” Kalthoum recalls. “If they had known I was there to film the lives of Syrian workers, I wouldn’t have been let in at all. My biggest challenge was limited time. I was given eight days to do the filming. Also, you can spend a whole day speaking with a worker and then the next day that person doesn’t want to speak to you at all and you don’t know why.”

Asked if he would ever take off his director’s hat and stop shooting in order to help someone in trouble, he equivocates a bit. “I feel strongly that we all have a job to do and my job is to tell my story, but I can’t say I’d never put down my camera. It would all depend. Is it 500 people who are being bombed or is it just one injured person we’re talking about?”

The Iraqi Quagmire

A military deserter during the Gulf War and living in exile, the Iraqi-born filmmaker Zaradasht Ahmed knew he could be shot instantly if he were caught in his homeland, let alone attempting to film the plight of the Iraqi people violently engulfed by destabilizing forces from abroad and severe ethnic strife from within.

As an exile he was also viewed as an outsider (and thus a threat) among those whose story he was trying to tell. Some assumed he was making a propaganda movie of some sort for one of the many enemy forces within and outside the country. And he faced further risks as a Kurd filming Arabs. The Kurds are a minority within a fractured country where mutual suspicion abounds.  

“Wherever you stand and whatever you say, there’s always going to be someone to hate you,” he observes. “You have to be very careful about what you say and how you say it. There are no police or army forces to protect you. ISIS forces may be disguised as the Iraqi army. Checkpoints run by ISIS can pop up at anytime, anywhere. It’s almost impossible to shoot a movie in Iraq.”

Nowhere to Hide, a grisly and deeply disturbing film, took four years to make as it evolved from a political exploration of what Ahmed dubbed a “a new kind of war, a war machine” to a portrait of one medic, Nori Sharif, who treated the wounded and was ultimately forced to flee from his home. He and his family existed like nomads before finding refuge in a camp for Internally Displaced People.

Ahmed taught the medic to use a small video camera and much of the film was shot by Sharif himself, recording his own story and personal evolution informed by the surrounding events. The result was 300 to 400 hours of footage that Ahmed then fashioned into a structured story featuring a central character with whom the audience identifies as he moves from being confident and forward-looking when the Americans first arrived to despairing and homeless when, according to Ahmed, the American presence only further destabilized the country and ISIS was growing and on the move.

Ahmed almost played an auxiliary role and appreciates how the portrait of one man told from the inside proved a far more potent political document than he had initially imagined. “It was a new story and a new way of telling a story,” he says.

Lying to Tell the Truth

Documentaries are the most common genre in this current crop of homegrown theatre-of-war cinema. But some directors are telling their stories through fiction.

Filmmaker Shawkat Amin Korki uses the theatrical feature—his Memories on Stone is a movie within a movie—to recount the atrocities the Iraqi Kurdistan people endured under Saddam Hussein. Echoing Ahmed, he says the Kurds experience their own particular hell across the Middle East. Nonetheless, his film, with its elements of autobiography, is at moments amusing and downright absurdist.

On one level, it’s a movie about Saddam Hussein’s genocide of the Kurdish people, numbering between 50,000 to 100,000 civilians executed through poison gas and starvation. On another level, and in startling contrast to the horror, it’s about the fictional director attempting to film this story and comically frustrated at every turn.

He has limited access to essential equipment and casting is a major stumbling block, especially when it comes to the actresses who are up against the cultural forces that frown on women performing at all. The contradictory elements create distance and paradoxically underscore the barbarity of the real story—e.g., the actual film the moviemaker is attempting to forge.

“Lying to tell the truth”—e.g., using fiction to camouflage critical political views that may be dangerous to voice—is nothing new. It’s a technique that’s been employed by artist-dissidents throughout the ages.

The Dubai-based Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala admits he’s using the theatrical feature as a camouflage for his criticism of Islamic extremism in a country notorious for its barbaric racism and sectarianism in South Sudan and Darfur.

You Will Die at 20, the first feature film made in Sudan in more than 20 years and at the time of our talk still in the pre-production phase, tells the story of a boy who is cursed by a Dervish prophet proclaiming he will die when he reaches his 20th birthday. Everyone in the village believes him, including the boy. That is, until a filmmaker arrives on the scene—an embodiment of liberal thinking—opening a new world to him. For the first time, the young man doubts the prophecy, while his mother keeps him imprisoned in their house.

To avoid censorship and create good art in the process, “you don’t allow any one character to become a political spokesperson,” Abu Alala explains. “My job is just to tell the story—it’s a character study—as opposed to offering an obvious opinion and then it’s up to viewers to interpret the movie any way they want.”

That said, he admits there are no real restrictions in making a film in Sudan, mostly because there is no film scene in Sudan today (though there is reportedly a grassroots effort to revitalize the industry that was alive and well at one time). No one will stop you from doing what you want. But no one will help you either. Publicly screening a film is something else. That’s where censorship might come into play. For him, the major challenge is in landing European co-producers. All the filmmakers talk about the need for foreign (mostly Western European) investors. Without them there would be few if any films coming out of these countries.

Betrayal?

Kelly Ali’s disturbing short documentary, Land of Men, depicting the denigrated status of women—which is no better if not far worse—than their lives in the pre (2011)-uprising years, was spawned thanks to the Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI), which held a workshop in Tripoli designed to foster Libyan films that would portray Libyan lives from new perspectives. Three films were made under SDI’s program.

Land of Men’s protagonist is a woman who says she’d love to be a filmmaker. Ali couldn’t have found a more relevant subject and one close to his heart. She admits there’s no film scene in Libya, not that it would welcome women if it existed. The men assert that women belong in the kitchen and women bosses have no souls.

Asked if he experiences any conflict in confirming the Westerner’s stereotype of Muslim men, Ali says: Not at all. His feminism eclipses his tribalism and he’s grateful to the SDI for their support.

Yemenite Sara Ishaq (Karema Has No Walls, The Mulberry House) had a more ambivalent experience in exposing her world to the prying/critical eyes of outsiders. But then, her topic was far more personal: her family and by extension herself. 

Nothing about it was simple. For starters, she never thought she’d witness revolution in her country or the evolution of her family. She certainly had no expectation that she’d resolve the profound rift with her father or the role filmmaking would play in her own new perspective.

Still, Ishaq came to the table well-versed in ambivalence, beginning with her dual identity, which has informed her conflicted sense of self from the get-go, but especially in the post-9/11 years. The daughter of a Scottish Christian mother and a Yemenite Muslim father, she was deeply troubled during that period, “because I could see the beauty and frustration on both sides,” she says.

As an ethnically mixed Arab attending college in Edinburgh, she knew what it meant to be seen as “the other,” and viewed through a prism of stereotypes. “When I said I was going to Yemen to do my thesis film, my classmates were horrified,” she recalls. “They worried that I’d be kidnapped and married off to some tribesman. The guys in the class offered to be my chaperones.”

As overstated as their image was, she had her own mixed feelings about the singularly isolated, insular and parochial world she was about to re-enter after close to a decade of self-imposed exile, thanks in large part to a break with her father.

When she was 15, he wanted to arrange a marriage for her with an appropriate suitor, insisting that getting married young was a good thing because you could have lots of children quickly and at 15 a girl was still young enough “‘to be molded by her husband,’” Ishaq says, recalling her father’s words and her own sense of betrayal in light of his own history. “After all, he had lived an open life abroad and married my mother. Yet back in Yemen he was once again defined by the values of his culture.”

She returned to Yemen to make her thesis movie mostly because film students were encouraged to tackle autobiographical topics. Her initial idea, to explore her own life through a film about her grandfather, soon morphed into a larger project that ultimately mined her whole family as well as the revolution in the streets that started shortly after she arrived and culminated in a public massacre. That became the turning point, the lightning rod for the country, her family and her films.

The result was two documentaries: the short Karema Has No Walls, a moving tribute with some powerful imagery to non-violent resistance, which was nominated for an Oscar; and a full-length feature, The Mulberry House, an affectionate, almost elegiac, but never sentimental memoir of her family.

Like many of the others interviewed for this story, her major challenge was being seen carrying a camera. Surveillance was prevalent and kidnapping of journalists and filmmakers was not uncommon. Ishaq hid the camera under a long black coat and also wore a head covering so as not to attract unwanted attention.

However, being a woman was not a stumbling block at all. Quite the contrary, it served her well. “Since women are perceived as less threatening than men, it’s much easier for a woman to gain access, especially if you sweet-talk the men and tell them you’ll make them look good,” she says. “The only time I had any kind of problem was at the airport when I was stopped because I had a hard drive on me. I said it was a video of a wedding, hoping they wouldn’t check it because that would violate the privacy of the women who were being photographed. Muslim men are not supposed to look at pictures of women who are not their wives or blood relatives. The guards didn’t check to see what was on the hard drive and I got through.”

In shooting her family, Ishaq felt an added responsibility to make sure everyone, especially the women, was dressed appropriately and modestly. As much as she wanted to show the world how “normal” Yemenites are, she couldn’t photograph women talking among themselves in pajamas, without head coverings.

It was a constant juggling act between maintaining authenticity on the one hand and not showing disrespect to the cultural traditions on the other and/or even putting her subjects in literal danger.

Throughout the filmmaking, the Saudis were conducting airstrikes from above while civil war was raging from within. She agrees with Ahmed that no matter who you are, you’re going to offend someone and there’s no consistency to the hate. “Everyone is vilifying everyone else and the targets of that hate are constantly changing,” she observes.

She talks about a portrait of a Hezbollah icon that hangs on her family’s living room wall. Without giving the picture much thought, she photographed it in panning the scene, she says, stressing no one would have given the portrait any thought in 2004. But in 2015 the situation had deteriorated so badly someone who saw the portrait in the movie accused the family of being supporters of Iran and said the Saudis needed to know about them. There had already been a car bombing in front of their house. 

Though she never censored negative aspects of Yemenite life in her film, Ishaq admits her ethnic identity had to play an unconscious role in defining the movie. Those defensive mechanisms are built in, especially when you’re filming your own family.

On the flip side, the experience of making the movie broadened her understanding of the world from which she emerged, and not simply because of the large amount of time she spent with her family while filming, though extended time played its role.

But far more important, as a filmmaker she needed to distance herself and listen, really listen to what family members had to say. The act of writing and editing—giving the film a theme and shape—forced her to view her subjects, including her father, as if for the first time and ultimately in a more compassionate light.

And thanks at least in part to the filmmaking process, her father evolved as well. With the cameras rolling, he knew he had to account for himself without grandstanding. His daughter, the director, would not tolerate that. The surrounding chaos and the galvanizing politics were contributors to his evolution as well. In many ways it set the stage for much of what happened within the family.

“At first, my father didn’t want me to do any filming in town,” she says. “In the end, he carried my tripod. He said, ‘We’re all going to die anyway, we might as well die for something we believe in.’”

Death Threats

Many of the films mentioned in this story have not been screened publicly in their countries of origin—or they’ve come and gone quickly. The filmmakers were (and are) hopeful that people across the globe, especially Americans, will see their films and view their people’s plight with greater understanding.

In the best of all possible worlds, Americans would pressure the policy-makers to step up to the plate, lift all travel bans, provide humanitarian aid, and in some instances, deploy troops to their countries, though the latter was voiced with ambivalence.

Most of the filmmakers I interviewed are living abroad, some in hiding. Fayyad, for example, who was smuggled out of Syria in the middle of the night, “climbing across mountains and lying low between trees,” he recalls, now resides in Denmark. But the fear continues. He does not release his address and is very cautious to whom he tells where he is going. He says since Last Men in Aleppo has been seen, he has received menacing messages with threats, such as “We can find you wherever you are.”

A Side Note: From Both Sides Now

Clearly, not all “banned” nations are equally hellish for their filmmakers. Iran, for example, boasts a long and distinguished line of directors (Asghar Farhadi heads the list) and in many ways filming in Iran is far simpler than shooting in the States, says Iranian-born Babak Jalali (Frontier Blues, Radio Dreams) ,who has worked in both countries and in Mexico.

Admittedly, in Iran all scripts need to be vetted by the Culture of Ministry before filming permits are issued, says Jalali. Screenplays that voice anti-Iranian or anti-Muslim sentiment are nixed. Explicit sexuality is out and it goes without saying stories that even hint at a pro-American or pro-Israeli sentiment would not be made. (Israeli films are banned from Iran.)

Still, it’s much easier to film a truck moving down the street in Iran than it would be in London or the States “where you need endless permits, clearances, certificates of insurance, and all kinds of paperwork just to shoot a ten-second scene,” he points out. “In Iran you just shoot the truck moving down the street.”

Similarly, if a curtain needs to be drawn on a set, an electrician who’s on hand will do it. In the United States, union regulations dictating who does what are adhered to rigidly. In Iran, if a producer wants to cast an Iranian star, he phones the actor directly. In the States, the producer has to go through agents, managers and lawyers. “Everything is more involved and more expensive,” he continues.

Though brought up mostly in London—the family left Iran in ’86 when Jalali was seven—he self-identifies as an Iranian, an outsider; and it’s a sensibility that shapes all his films, starting with Frontier Blues, a droll comedy recounting four intertwined lives of the most marginalized on the northern border of Iran, a forgotten and forsaken subculture.

Twenty-three years after leaving his homeland, he felt compelled to return and make his film there and cast nonprofessional locals in all the roles. “Nobody has told their story before, not that the movie was ever released in Iran,” says Jalali. “It was too ‘art house’ and many audiences in Iran respond like my grandmother who says, ‘Why do I have to pay to go to a movie when all I have to do is open the door and see the same thing?’”

Radio Dreams, set in a Farsi-language, San Francisco-based radio station, is a gently satiric but warm-hearted look at the lives of Iranian immigrants who are emotionally homeless and caught between two worlds as they try to become fully Americanized and aren’t quite making it.

It’s very much the immigrant narrative about people struggling to just get by in a new country, “without imposing their values on anyone,” says Jalali. “The timing of this project is peculiar, with your President banning certain people from coming to America. More than a million and half Iranians have lived in America for decades and not one terrorist attack in America has been perpetrated by an Iranian. Unfortunately, the people who should see this movie won’t be going to it.”

It’s premature to predict the fate of his next film, Land, now in pre-production. Jalali knows his story about an impoverished and besieged Native American family—which has lost one son serving in Afghanistan and has another who is an alcoholic—may not be for all palates. His ethnic identity as an Iranian doesn’t help.

“I questioned my legitimacy and some of the Native Americans I spoke with were skeptical,” he concedes. “But the vast majority were very happy that I will be telling their story, precisely because I’m an Iranian who comes from a borderland.”

Simi Horwitz has won multiple journalism awards for her stories appearing in American Theatre, Backstage, Forward, and three for her critical pieces published in Film Journal International, including The National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award, the Los Angeles Press Club Award and the Society for Feature Journalism Award.