The Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival is a biannual festival, organized by the Taiwan Association of Visual Ethnography and held in Taipei. I was very glad to attend this year’s festival, and over the five-day event I saw many interesting and inspiring films. One that immediately stood out for me was the documentary A Tale of Two Syrias. I studied Arabic in Damascus, and later returned there for work, so for me the film had a very personal appeal. Nevertheless, A Tale of Two Syrias makes interesting viewing for anyone who wants to know more about the region.
The film switches between two locations and two people. In Damascus, we follow the story of Salem, an Iraqi fashion designer who fled from Baghdad during the Iraq war and hopes to seek asylum in America. In Mar Musa, a remote hillside monastery in the Syrian countryside, we follow Botrus, a Syrian monk. The film weaves between these two stories to paint an intimate portrait of a country that despite the recent media coverage, most people know very little about. By capturing the difficulties faced by ordinary Syrians in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and also their vision of a better, freer life in the future, in some ways the film pre-empts the current conflict. However, through the beauty of Mar Musa and its inhabitants’ belief in inter-religious dialogue and mutual respect and tolerance, it also shows a vision of what that future Syria could be like.
I caught up with the director, Yasmin Fedda, whom I first met in Syria during my time there, and this is what she had to say:
eRenlai: It was great to see a film with a Middle East focus at the Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival. How did it happen? Did they approach you? Did you approach them? What was the deal?
YF: I had heard of the Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival through the Visual Anthropology networks that I am connected to, so I applied to them. They accepted, which was great!
eRenlai: Aside from your family links to the region, what was it that drew you to make a film about Syria?
YF: At the time of filming, in 2010, there were still a very limited number of documentaries made in Syria, both by Syrians and internationals. I felt that it was important to make a film about regular- but unique- people’s lives in a country that was largely misunderstood by the world’s media.
eRenlai: “A Tale of Two Syrias” is an intriguing title. What are the “two Syrias” you tried to capture while you were filming?
YF: I wanted to reflect the 2 stories of 2 individuals, the city and the country, the official and the unofficial, the before and the after.
eRenlai: Your film shows Syria through the perspective of two very different people, but nevertheless your two interviewees are both male, both Christian, and one of them is an Iraqi only recently arrived in Syria. Why did you choose these two people in particular to represent the Syria of 2010? Some people may question why you did not choose a Muslim or a female voice for example….
YF: Good question. I realised after finishing it that some audiences have assumed that Salem, the Iraqi, is Christian, but in fact he is Muslim, but not very religious. At the time of editing I decided I didn’t want to spell out what religion he is because he didn’t either. The only person’s religion I did mention is that of Botrus. In Syria it wasn’t strange for people of different religions to visit the shrines of other religions. I also think it is important to see that people’s religious beliefs and practices can be expressed in multiple ways, and being Muslim or Christian is not just done in one particular way that defines it for the rest. I also chose to have a story of an Iraqi refugee because up until 2010, up to 1 million Iraqis had gone through or settled in Syria and I wanted to humanise one of these experiences.
As for a female voice, I did try to find a female story, but after several different leads the stories didn’t work out for various reasons (either bureaucratic, or difficult access to their particular stories). So yes I did intend to have a female voice. But ultimately I was attracted to both Salem and Botrus’s stories as neither of them are your typical person in Syria and I think that gives an interesting perspective on life there at the time.
eRenlai: It was surprising that you managed to capture so many Syrians expressing their political opinions on camera (I am referring in particular to the discussions at Deir Mar Musa). Was there any suspicion on their part? Did you have to do much persuading?
While people were discussing in Mar Musa I was allowed to film, due to being accepted by the community and also because I think people felt safe to speak there, so I didn’t need to do any persuading. However the two discussions I filmed there now seem to reflect not only a different time, but also the issues that are pertinent today, like what does freedom look like and how do you share that and accept others?
eRenlai: Has the film ever been screened in Syria or the Middle East? If so how was the film received? What kind of comments did people have?
No, I haven’t screened it in Syria or the Middle East, as it is difficult to do so at the moment. But many Syrians have seen it and have given me great feedback, which has been valuable to me.
eRenlai: Could you talk about your changing emotions as the revolution in Syria started, then after a few months when it became clear there was going to be no quick toppling of the regime as in Libya or Tunisia, and finally when the revolution became a bloody civil war.
I was, of course, excited by the potential in Syria for change from dictatorship, and I still support this change. It became clear that this would not be easy as soon as the regime’s forces started killing people at protests and funerals, imprisoning and torturing thousands and using indiscriminate force in various parts of the country.
It is very sad and distressing to see the violence and destruction occurring in Syria today, and a strong solution to end the violence is needed as soon as possible, and then a transition to a different system of governance needs to be built.
Because of events in Syria today, the whole film has a sense of irony, tension and impending disaster it might not have had otherwise. Had there been no conflict in Syria as you were editing the film, would you have made your film differently? What would you have changed and why?
I am sure it would have been edited completely differently, and my perspectives would have been different. It is difficult to know what would have been different as making a film is also very instinctive, and I was editing whilst the revolution was gaining ground and there was increasing repression and violence. I could not separate those things from editing. But in saying that, the Syria I filmed in was run by an authoritarian regime with much structural violence, rising poverty, crony capitalism, and many other problems. It was far from being a non-conflicted country even then. So I feel that this sense of disaster was there, even in 2010, but it wasn’t clear where it was going exactly. The tension was there and I re-found it in the footage as I was editing.
eRenlai: At what stage of the editing process did the revolution start? How far had you got with the film?
The revolution started just as I started editing, so it was difficult to see the footage of a few months before with the current news of what was happening in Syria. It took a while for me to edit after that as I could not edit the film easily due to these changes in Syria and the effects these were having on friends and family there. I took a few months off from editing, and then returned to it, knowing that the situation there had changed dramatically.
eRenlai: Before the conflict, Syria was not often talked about in the media. Now, because of the conflict, Syria and films about Syria are getting far greater public attention. As a film-maker, could you describe your feelings when faced with this reality?
While there is a lot of media attention about Syria I feel that there is not enough that deals with it more deeply, as most of the work is about war, which can be quite frustrating. That being said there are more and more great films being made there and they are slowly being filtered out into the world.
eRenlai: With the escalation of the conflict into a civil war between a multitude of actors, some of whom have shown themselves to be just as brutal as the regime, can we still call the conflict a “revolution”? Can we still say that all factions of the rebels in Syria are fighting for freedom?
I think we can say that there is a lot happening in Syria and one of those things is a revolution. There are many other conflicts and fights going on at the same time but that does not mean we must sideline those that work non-violently or who focus on a change from dictatorship or for democracy. Silencing or ignoring them is dangerous, as is understanding the conflict in Syria in narrow terms, such as a conflict made up only of fighting factions, or of extremists, or full of brutal leaders. In reality there are many opinions and approaches.
Also it is important to keep things in perspective. The regime has, and still does, have majority of control of violence. The majority of destruction has been due to the regimes shelling and attacks, as have been most tortures, arrests and killings.
What is happening in Syria can also be called ‘uprisings’, a set of political processes that are occurring at the same time, trying to work out what they are and where they are going. Also the term ‘Freedom’ depends on your definition of it, so yes, many factions may be fighting for that, and the challenge is reconciling those different interpretations of the term.
eRenlai: What do you think when you hear what some Syrians interviewed in the media –both in Syria and outside the country- are saying; that they preferred things as they were under Bashar al-Assad to the chaos reigning in their country today?
I hear a variety of opinions coming out of Syria but I cannot say that I have heard this opinion very often at all. On the contrary, I hear the opposite much more. Many people ask for an end to the chaos and violence but recognise that the regime has been the driving force for this chaos from the start in order to win popular support and to become even more entrenched.
Some people do say they prefer Bashar al Assad, and others that they support someone else or some other group, and many others still that they prefer neither of these options. I think this reflects the diversity of experiences and opinions across the country and I think this variety needs to be acknowledged and a space for it created in the future.
eRenlai: Christians in Syria today- and the village of Maaloula in particular where some of your film was shot- are not being persecuted by the regime, but rather by Islamist factions of the opposition. How does this affect Christians’ place in the struggle against the regime? They must be in a difficult position now…
I think the premise of this question is wrong and you cannot assume that Christians as a whole are being persecuted. Many Christians have been persecuted by the regime pre and post conflict. At the same time there were individuals that were close to the regime and have favourable positions because of this. Sectarianism was used by the regime as a tool to consolidate power, both before and during the uprising against it. So this is a very complicated situation, as it is for Syrians of all backgrounds, including for Muslims, Druze, or atheists.
I think it is important not to see Christians as one homogenous group of people. There are many differing opinions and experiences which affect people’s decisions so I don’t think it makes sense to phrase the issue as the ‘Christians’ place in the struggle against the regime. It is about Syrians as a whole, people all over Syria are being targeted.
eRenlai: What is the best scenario for religious minorities in Syria? At the moment things do not look good either way for them…
I don’t believe this is a healthy way to see this issue. I think the best thing is to treat everyone as Syrians, as this is isn’t a sectarian conflict, and is still one based on power struggles. By saying that religious minorities are having a hard time, you are ignoring that the fact that the ‘majority ‘ of Syrians, many of whom are Sunni Muslims, are also having a very hard time. Everyone is affected by the conflict in deep ways and this must be recognised for everyone.
It is important to point out that the regime has aimed since the start to make this a sectarian conflict, and this kind of narrative supports their aim. Sectarianism exists, but the uprising did not begin as a sectarian uprising.
eRenlai: Going back to your title, “A Tale of Two Syrias”, what “two Syrias” (or more than two) can you envisage in the future when this horrible conflict has come to an end?
It will take a long time to rebuild Syria but I hope it will be just one Syria after the conflict. One that is based on dignity, equality and able to accept diversity of opinion, whatever it might be.
eRenlai: Will you be returning to the Middle East for another filming project soon?
I am going to be working in Jordan very soon, filming a theatre production of The Trojan Women by Euripides, set in the modern Syrian conflict and made with Syrian refugees who now live there.