Film

A Documentary About Syrian Refugees Undermines Its Subjects

‘A Syrian Love Story’ has an opportunity to do delicate, powerful work; instead, like its subjects, it gets trapped within the limits of its own choices.

Still from A Syrian Love Story (all images from the movie’s trailer)

On the afternoon of October 18, 2011, from my desk at Syria Today Magazine in Damascus, I tried to track down a missing filmmaker. “Hey,” I emailed a British photographer friend also based in the capital. “We noticed this morning that one Sean McAllister is reported to have gotten arrested in Syria — he’s been here for months — and all his videos (of people saying nice things about the government) seized … does anybody know if he’s contacted anybody — I mean, how disappeared is he?”

McAllister’s arrest was first reported in Arabic on the Facebook pages of local revolutionary coordination committees, warning anyone he’d filmed to flee the country immediately or face arrest and torture. The family he’d been filming — Raghda, Amer and their two boys — did escape, first to Lebanon and then to France. A Syrian Love Story is McAllister’s take on their journey: the boys’ coming of age and the unraveling of their parents’ marriage.

Confinement, literal and figurative, is a central theme of the film. The couple fall in love in prison, and the tension between their roles as comrades, parents, and spouses drives the film’s conflict. At its outset, Syrian prison has made a gaping hole in the family, with Amer and the boys suffering Raghda’s absence as she serves a nine-month sentence for her activism. In Lebanon, exile becomes another, larger jail, which Raghda tries to escape by leaving her family and returning to Syria. Her departure traps Amer in a limbo where, he says, “my heart is broken every day.” Raghda eventually returns, and on the strength of her status as a former political prisoner, the family is granted visas to France. There, the couple’s marriage disintegrates as their children assimilate.

Raghda’s problem, as Amer sees it, is that she cannot be both “Che Guevara and a mother.” Raghda’s problem, as she sees it, is that everyone wants her to take care of them, but no one takes care of her. The couple’s problem, as their sons see it, is that though they’re physically free in France, they are still emotionally locked in “a big cage” of trauma.

Still from A Syrian Love Story

Eventually, Amer leaves his wife for a Frenchwoman, finding peace in “being quiet.” Raghda attempts suicide, recovers, and continues to advocate for the revolution she cannot stand to abandon. Both parents see themselves as building a future for their children: Amer in quiet France, Raghda in unquiet Syria.

The film’s strength lies in its ability to situate the impact of vastly violent conflict in an intimate personal context. In the moment of McAllister’s arrest, which is narrated over footage of detained Syrians being beaten, the filmmaker has literally, if accidentally, put himself on the line for the sake of witnessing history. Within this framework, the film has an opportunity to do delicate, powerful work exploring the intersection of national trauma with the strains of domestic life.

But it does not do this work. Instead, like its subjects, it gets trapped within the limits of its own choices. Foremost, by confining dialogue between McAllister and his subjects to English — a language none of the Syrians are proficient in — it severely undermines not only their abilities to express themselves (in phrases so choppy they must be subtitled) but also the scope of the questions McAllister asks them: “Are you happy/sad?” “Are things good now in France?”

Still from A Syrian Love Story

This obstruction of adequate self-expression is especially heartbreaking as Raghda and Amer try and fail to rebuild their relationship on camera by communicating their respective positions. When Raghda chokes up as she tries to explain her flashbacks to prison, it is impossible to know whether her silences are due to trauma or lack of English vocabulary. Either way, by denying its protagonists the means to fully articulate themselves, the film unwittingly echoes, on an aesthetic level, the political repression they paid dearly for challenging, even while mining the pathos of their marital breakdown.

Equally frustrating is the film’s exclusion of the Syrian context from its vision of life in exile. This especially damages its treatment of Raghda, who suffers precisely from her desire to remain faithful to two core commitments simultaneously: her politics and her family. Once the flawed revolution disappears from the screen, so does the meaning — on her terms — of her struggle. With the failing revolution invisible, Raghda looks, particularly in the scene when she has just attempted suicide, like a slovenly, unfit mother, chain-smoking and avoiding eye-contact with the British man filming her and asking why she feels that “everything is bad.” Perhaps she feels bad because two of her loves — revolution and husband — have betrayed her! But we cannot know, and by eliding everything that is happening in Syria, the film winds up taking Amer’s side, reinforcing the idea that it is better to leave the baggage of the past behind.

Still from A Syrian Love Story

In a pre-recorded post-screening talk, McAllister made it clear that this framing, wherein the film “completely lost a lot of the context … worked for what we wanted to do, which is make a bigger audience as possible in a TV market and tell a human story.” But this is wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. The lynchpin of this love story is its genesis in protest and its subjects’ tortured ties to that history, which is still ongoing. Without that fundamental dramatic structure, the protagonists would have no agon, no heroic struggle, and there would be no story to tell.

By largely reducing the scope of the story to a he-said, she-said formulation, the film misses the chance to raise vital questions for its audiences. How can love in a Syrian context be usefully translated into a Western one, where love and freedom are packaged and imagined largely in personal, apolitical, neoliberal consumer terms? How do the broader and equally difficult commitments involved in a Syrian love story — to dignity, to human rights, to the rule of law —challenge the generic Hollywood romance, which presumes that the fall of Troy is redeemed by Brad Pitt’s Achilles seducing a pretty POW? For better or worse, what we need now is art that is capable, if not of giving all the answers, at least of asking the crucial questions.

A Syrian Love Story will be screened on March 29 during TIFF’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that McAllister’s post-screening talk was live in person, when in fact it was pre-recorded and played for the audience. 

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