In the latest story of the Syrian government cracking down on artists, independent filmmaker Orwa Nyrabia has gone missing, presumably detained by Syrian authorities.
Nyrabia, 35, was supposed to fly to Cairo on August 23, but his family lost contact with him soon after he arrived at the airport. They contacted the Egyptian authorities, who said they had no record of Nyrabia boarding the plane. Both his family and fellow filmmakers suspect that he has been arrested by the government, which could mean indefinite detention and torture.
With producer Diana el-Jeiroudi (whom the Guardian identifies as his wife), Nyrabia co-founded both Proaction Film, the only independent documentary-film company in Syria, and DoxBox, reportedly the largest and most significant documentary film festival in the Arab region. Last year the duo decided to suspend the fifth edition of the festival to protest the ongoing civil war in Syria. They launched a Global Day for Syria instead, in which Syrian documentaries were shown in 38 cities around the world on March 15, the first anniversary of the Syrian revolution.
Lawrence Wright offers some context on the way culture works in Syria on New Yorker blog:
In Syria, the government completely controls the culture. The repression isn’t just secret policemen and soldiers in the street. It is near total domination of all forms of art and communication. Filmmaking receives special oversight. Ironically, Syria has produced a small but significant body of important films, often shown in international festivals and all financed by the government, but they are rarely seen in Syria itself, because of the regime’s fear of public gatherings. Twenty years ago, there were a hundred and twenty cinemas in Syria; when I was there for The New Yorker in 2006, only six were functioning.
Assuming he has been detained by the government, what Nyrabia faces is far from comforting: a New York Times report earlier this said that more than 600 people had died under torture in Syria since the uprising began. Sculptor Wael Issa Kaston met that fate earlier this summer. And another young filmmaker and a friend of Nyrabia’s, Bassel Chehade, was shot dead in Homs in May.
“We pray that Arwa gets off lightly. The regime has been brutal towards Syria’s intellectuals,” a friend of Nyrabia’s told Al Arabiya News.
A group of 51 members of the UK film community, including Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, and Colin Firth, has published a letter calling for Nyrabia’s release, and the Toronto Film Festival, which starts this week, as well as the Cannes Film Festival and other French film organizations, have released statements, according to the Huffington Post. We can only hope that, as in the case of the abduction of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the international statements will have some impact. But circumstances are vastly different in the two countries, and it’s not clear if the Syrian regime cares about its reputation in the West for how it treats artists and filmmakers. If anything, these abductions are a reminder that while those making art may sometimes question its power, those in power don’t.