A Syrian Love Story (Q&A)

With director Sean McAllister, 2015

How do you find your characters? What do you look for in them?

I go on a long walk looking for a film, thinking of what story I want to tell of the place I find myself in. I don’t spend much time reading about the places I film, I prefer to go live and learn from hanging out with people. I spend a long time looking for a single character that encapsulates something of the place, someone who embodies the conflicts of the place I find myself in, but it is always hard to find someone who is a ‘character’ and has a ’story’. Often you find a good ‘character’ without a ’story’ or sometimes you find someone who has a ‘story’ who isn’t a character. So what makes a documentary character has become the eternal question… for me, in my way of making films, it is someone who I can befriend in a true way as a part of the process in the film making, and this bonding becomes part of my film. It helps my audience warm to the people I film, and it’s what comes naturally to me in the way I like to make my films, usually alone, using the people I film to become my film crew as opposed to the usual way where we crowd out the people we film when we mob them with big film crews camera gear and lights etc. I prefer to slip in and out and film in a small light hand held way in a casual way, capturing scenes and moments in life after missed by big film crews. But more crucially, I feel need to have a role ‘a fly in soup’ role as opposed to ’fly on the wall’ – I believe we always affect what we film and I like to take it one step further and find people who step into the process of my film making and engage with me in what I like to see as a process of change through our interaction.

What is it that interests you so much in the Middle East?

I feel at home in the Middle East, I joke it’s the hummus that keeps taking me back (this is in part true) but I do like the laid back life style of the locals when I’m in the Middle East they remind me in a way of mates back in Hull. I can’t live in Hull anymore, in part because of the closed mentality of locals (I guess everywhere, not just Hull) but I love travelling and feel inspired when I’m meeting people and exploring places, and for some reason (in part the great vegetarian cuisine and maybe the politics) I feel most at home in the Middle East.

Why did you first go to Syria?

Having made films in Iraq, Palestine and various war torn places in the Middle East, I wanted to make a film about a country that seemed to be a functioning dictatorship. I first went to Syria in 2009 curious about its secularism and booming tourist industry. Under Bashar Al Assad, the young ‘reformer’, tourism was generating millions of dollars a year. I visited the bars and nightclubs in the old city of Damascus and remember filming a club turning out at 5am. Men and women danced drunk together in the street as the call to prayer rang out from the minarets. Such were the ‘freedoms’. Assad seemed beloved by his people, but was this adoration or fear? One night in 2009, I met Amer, drinking a beer in a bar. Here was someone who wanted to show the world the truth of the Syrian people away from the glitz of the tourist quarters in old Damascus. My love affair with Syria had begun… But after a year of hanging out there and starting to get a grip of the film I wanted to make, the ‘Arab Spring’ took off and then everything went up in flames. It seemed that nothing would be the same again… it felt like the impossible had happened. But I could have never imagined a worse story then the tragedy that has beset Syria today.

What was it like filming with the same family over such a long period of time?

Amer’s family moved 15 times during filming, but at each stage I was always welcomed in – I always had a place at the dinner table and a place to stay in their home. I didn’t know Raghda when I started filming – as she was in prison – but I never expected that she would end up taking centre stage of this film. At first – just as Amer had been – she was very stilted with the camera and naturally untrusting. But the longer I stayed with them the closer I got. The closeness became difficult at one stage as their relationship really broke down and Raghda would call me and ask me to come over to help make sense of their lives and their faltering relationship. It was as if they had both stepped into the film and used it in for their own means. It is this involvement in the process of filming that I find most fascinating (and try encourage emerging filmmakers to harness) I’m always surprised as a filmmaker to witness the brutal honesty of people when they are naked and open in front of your camera. It is a painstaking process – it takes years to get inside, so that people are not just acting out their lives in front of your camera but using you and a projected audience to help make sense of the world they find themselves in.

What compelled you to keep going back to film, without any commission or support until late in the process?

We weren’t commissioned or supported to make the film until quite late in the process so I didn’t really know if the film would ever see the light of day but I kept going back to see them as friends and filming – I couldn’t stop myself. In retrospect, this gave the film it’s longevity and story arch and has made the experience of making this film more like a life I adopted, or a family that eventually adopted me. It’s an absurd hobby I call a job; it kills me most of the time but has the small significant reward of seeing my characters championed on the screen and stepping forward defiant in their lives through their involvement with the film. I feel proud and happy for Amer, Raghda and their beautiful wonder family, and very honoured that they gave so much to make this film – it is the most special film I have made to date in my career.

For the first few years that you were filming with Amer and his sons, Raghda was in prison. What was it like to meet and film with Raghda for the first time, after you’d created a bond with the family in her absence?

It was scary to meet Raghda… very scary after a long filming the family in her absence I’d found a place with them in the family but when she came out of prison I felt like a stranger again a bit, like I had to start again and in way I did. It takes longer then normal to win the trust of people in tense and dangerous places, and although Amer had finally started trusting me after what seemed like years of filming, it felt like I was starting again on that whole process when Raghda came out of prison. She didn’t trust me and I felt awkward filming her intimately with her family. It was also a difficult time as she was adjusting and I felt very intrusive filming the family when they should have private moments but its one of the things that you know needs to be documented to make a great film – and I know that I am right in having filmed them when I look back at those measured scenes, sitting with Raghda with tears in her eyes. She can hardly remember the scenes let alone that they’re documented. But that’s our role as good filmmakers, I believe, to be bold and out there, to know when to push the boat out and film and get things documented even when it maybe doesn’t feel comfortable. I, as the ‘fly in soup’, believe in pushing people to their limits in order to get the best scenes, the best material, the best moments of truth, of refection, of honesty. And the proof for me is in the pudding, and is always in sitting down at the end of this arduous process with Amer Raghda or whoever I film and taking pleasure at watching what we have all accomplished together come alive as a truly emotional engaging human story that transcends those 30 second news bites that people normally rely on to understand the Middle East. When the people that I want to communicate with watch A Syrian Love Story they can no longer watch the Calais crisis on TV news and just see ‘swarms’ or ‘floods’ of faceless figures (as Cameron like to call them) trying to flee Syria and enter Europe of the UK as if they are coming to steal something from us.. They will know Amer, Raghda, Kaka and beautiful little Bob and see a family full of love, that laugh and cry and live and who have many friends who have died… and through this film, shot sensitively with love over 5 years, open themselves in rare way for the world to see, fighting, drinking dancing, dreaming… all the things the news doesn’t have time for, all the things that documentary has and should do, to challenge all the stereotypes of what we film and show life as it is.