Syria is an Arab country in the Near East, plunged in permanent war, but whose history of cinematography is a compelling one. The story about Syrian cinematography is nearly as long, as the Euphrates — one of the two longest rivers in Mesopotamia. This cinematography is definitely worth discovering, as it is described as one of the most mysterious one in the world.
In order to discover the very beginning of the Syrian cinema, one must go back to a cafe in Aleppo, where the first screening of a film took place, back in 1908. Eight years later, the Ottoman authorities established the first cinema in Damascus. It was inaugurated by governor Jamal Pasha, but burnt down just a month later, after a series of unfortunate incidents. At that time, Syria became a French colony, which led to the establishing of many new screening rooms, occupies by the city bourgeoisie. The first they had a chance to see was The Innocent Suspect (Al Muttaham al Baree), a black and white feature film directed and produced by Rasheed Jalal, in 1928. Interestingly, the first film made in Egypt, which was a much larger country than Syria, came to life just a year earlier, in 1927. The pioneer picture by Jalal has always been considered as an attempt to show the national identity and culture of Syria, and was an ideological manifesto against the coloniser. Unfortunately, Syrian cinemas were soon dominated by Egyptian films, which followed directly after the releasing of the second national film production in Syria, i.e. Under the Damascus Sky (Tahta Sama ‘Dimashq), in 1934. The enthusiasm for filmmaking in Syria was weakened, which resulted from lack of funds. It had not been until the regaining of independence in 1947, when Nazih Shahbandar established a production studio that made Light and Darkness (Nur wa Thalam), in 1948. That was the beginning for the development of the first eave of Syrian cinematography. However, films were very erratic and the majority of them copied Egyptian productions. A breakthrough came in 1963, when the film industry came under the authority of the Department of National Film Organisation in the Ministry of Culture. The structural change in the financing model for national cinematography resulted in an inflow of funds. New filmmakers showed up, followed by new concepts and ideas, while production and distribution started to develop much faster. The first film production of the National Film Organisation was The Lorry Driver (Sa’eq al-Shahinah, 1967), directed by Poçko Poçkovic. The film told a story about a poor man, who was entangled in the political system of social inequalities. However, it was adaptations of famous Arab novels, written by Ghassan Kanafani, Haydar Haydar, or Hanna Mina, that gained popularity. One of the films that deserve particular recognition is Leopard (1972) by Nabil Maleh. The film tells a story about a boy that had his land property confiscated by a rich landowner. The film was awarded a Special Prize at the Locarno IFF, in 1972. Nabil Maleha is considered the father of contemporary Syrian cinema. The prize won in Locarno resulted in the National Film Organisation inviting Arab filmmakers to work in Syria. It obviously came with agreeing to be subject to a certain political line, which was unacceptable for many artists. The most recognisable Arab filmmaker of the time was Tawfiq Saleh, who was connected with neo-realism in Egyptian cinematography. He made The Dupes (Al-makhdu’un, 1973) was an adaptation of Men in the Sun novel, written by Ghassan Kanafani, a writer from Palestine. The film turned out to be one of the first Arab films to have strayed from the melodramatic approach to the Palestinian question, by expressing a sceptical stance toward the Pan-Arabism. The common feature of the films made in 1970s was an attempt to describe historical events and using the camera to record reality. The majority of films was quite metaphorical, though, which made critics define that period of time as the “auteur period in Syrian cinema”. The year 1980 opened the second wave of ambitious and exciting cinema, in the history of this country in the Near East. Achrafa Fahmia and his The Half-Meter Incident (Haditha al-Nisf Metr, 1982) is one of those, who stood out in the generation of new filmmakers. It was auteur cinema of the highest quality, which presented a perfect diagnosis of the Syrian society. The film was screened at film festivals in Venice, Berlin, and Valencia. It contained autobiographical themes and told about the experiences of a simple people, afflicted with traumatic incidents. It is also worth mentioning Abdellatif Abdul-Hamid and his films: Nights of the Jackals (Layali Ibn Awah, 1989), Verbal Letters (Rassa’el Shafahiyya, 1991), and At our listeners’ request (Ma Yatlubuhu al-Mustami’un, 2003). The mentioned films won numerous awards at international film festivals. In his pictures, Abdul-Hamid showed the tragedy of common people, and the storyline in his films is interwoven with a mockery of the society and politics. He also commented on dreams, aspirations, and passions of young people, who were brutally confronted with the reality of a war. 1980s and 1990s were also the time when many interesting documentaries came to life. Omar Amiralay was one of the most recognised authors of the genre. He was also one of the most influential filmmakers of Arabic origin, who won international recognition, among others, for A Flood in Baath Country. Most of the films made by Amiralay were banned in Syria, as the country held a monopoly on film production. Cousin told a story about Riyad al-Turk, leader of the Syrian opposition, who spent more than 17 years in jail, as a political prisoner. The director said: “I live in a country that is heading toward its own death, after it was betrayed by its own leaders and the intellectual potential of the intelligentsia.” Mohammad Malas is another prominent filmmaker from Syria. His first feature film was called Dreams of the City (Ahlam al-Madina, 1983), which was followed by The Night (Al-lail, 1992). Both films make a reference to the director’s biography and are set in 1950s and 1960s, and — together with Passion (Bab el makam, 2005) — constitute a complete trilogy. In recent years, a number of films made by young filmmakers from Syria have left their mark at international festivals of experimental and documentary films. Those filmmakers belong to the third wave of Syrian cinema that abandoned the cooperation with the National Film Organisation. Independent filmmakers are looking for their own voice and style, in order to express their disagreement with political and social events, at the same time questioning current values and beliefs. One of such filmmakers is Nidal el-Dibs, who made Under the Ceiling (Tahta al-Saqf, 2005) presenting the perspective of young people in Syria. Ammar el-Beik and Meyar al-Roumi also belong to the group of new filmmakers. All of them make the majority of their films in other countries. It may seem that the national cinema of Syria is coming to an end. The revolution in cinema is interrupted by consecutive armed conflicts that destroy the spirit of Syria, but also many film archives. Nabil Maleha — who was awarded with a lifetime achievement prize at the IFF in Dubai, in 2006 — said that the common feature of all contemporary Arab films is the dependence on politics, economic restrictions, and no freedom of speech. According to his opinion, Arab filmmakers have always been victims of Fascist regimes. Omar Amiralay has been very pessimistic about the role played by contemporary Syrian cinema, when making reference to his own film work: “My cinema expresses despair in the face of tyranny which governs the life around me and degrades the role of people, depriving them of any hope, whatsoever.”