Slipping past the censors: Paris puts spotlight on Syrian cinema
For half a century Syria's filmmakers were forced to work under a numbing state censor or choose exile. But a flow of images beamed online from the conflict zone, spotlighted in Paris this week, may contain the seeds of a new Syrian cinema.
The French capital's Forum Des Images Film Centre is showcasing some of the gems to have slipped past the censors since the 1970s, alongside raw and urgent images born of the revolution.
"There are ways to shoot movies in Syria, but you have to be brave," explained Meyar Al-Roumi, who once resorted to bringing along TV-star friends as decoys to be able to film untroubled by police.
Other times he was not so lucky: in 2007 while working on a portrait of six Damascus taxi drivers, he was denounced by one of them -- who turned out to be secret service worker moonlighting as a taxi service.
In his 2001 documentary "Un Cinema Muet" (Cinema on Mute) the Paris-based Al-Roumi describes how Syria's National Cinema Organisation managed to choke off homegrown filmmaking since it was founded in 1963.
He tells of talented directors like Ossama Mohammad or Mohamed Malas -- screened at the festival -- who manage to make just one or two films in a lifetime, ground down by the Kafkaesque requirements of the state.
"The regime managed to kill off Syria's cinema just as it was being born," summed up Charif Kiwan, who founded a production company called Abounaddara in Damascus in 2010 to broadcast emerging talent directly online.
"Today it is a field of ruins. There are no cinemas, no funding, filmmakers have to look to foreign festivals and broadcasters -- therefore to an audience that is not their own." That is the case of Al-Roumi or the late documentary maker Omar Amiralay, who chose to shoot films without official approval for broadcast on the Al-Arabiya or Al-Jazeera networks, or the Franco-German Arte.
According to the Forum Des Film Centre, the festival was originally created by the poet Pierre Emmanuel and designed by architect Paul Chemetov. The Forum des Images was intended as an audiovisual memory bank of Paris. The institution began by bringing together a collection of films about the city shot as early as 1895 with the greatest possible variety of origins, genres and media. Features, shorts, fiction films, documentaries, advertisements, television programs, amateur films, institutional films … each had its place in the collection.
This festival examines the links between international contemporary cinema and geopolitics. Over 40 different films (mainly feature films) from around the world are presented, each one giving an insight into contemporary social issues expressed by the filmmaker.
Forum Des Images Film Festival opened on 30 Novmeber and lasts until 9 December.