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A Syrian Love Story

© Mark Kermode / The Guardian / September 20, 2015


‘a microcosm of a global crisis’ A moving and often painful documentary about a devoted Syrian couple united and then torn apart by political struggle

“She’s a very strong woman, I’m a very weak man…” Filmed over a period of five years, this intimate and insightful documentary perfectly balances the personal and the political, telling its tale of national and international upheavals through their impact on individuals at the cutting edge of change. This is a profoundly moving account of two love stories: that between the film’s central couple, Amer and Raghda, who are torn apart by imprisonment and exile; the other being their love for Syria, which casts a long shadow over their lives, their marriage and their children.

We first meet independent film-maker Sean McAllister in 2009, one of a group of journalists being shown around geology museums and heritage sites in Syria, an attempt to “sell the country as the next tourist hot spot”. McAllister’s true focus, however, is political prisoners. In Damascus he meets Amer, who is bringing up his sons alone in Tartus while their mother languishes in prison. The couple met when both were behind bars, Palestinian-born Amer glimpsing the bruised and bloodied face of left-wing Syrian activist Raghda through a hole in a prison door. Their relationship blossomed upon release and their marriage produced beautiful sons. Then Raghda was arrested again, this time for the crime of writing a book critical of president Assad, leaving Amer to campaign for her release and to “wait for my wife, maybe five years, maybe more…”

Hope springs in 2011 as a wave of protests pave the way for Raghda’s release, and McAllister is there to capture both the public demands and private reunions. But when the film-maker himself is picked up by Syrian security forces, the family is forced to flee to Lebanon, leaving Raghda feeling stateless and isolated (“I’m just a prisoner here”). Internationally recognised as political refugees, they are offered asylum in France, but only at the price of effectively abandoning both the land and the struggle upon which their relationship was first built.
Having earned himself a reputation as a film-maker willing to go the extra mile with 2004’s The Liberace of Baghdad and 2012’s The Reluctant Revolutionary, McAllister here conjures a mosaic of footage which can be variously read as hidden-camera investigation, socio-political treatise, fly-on-the-wall family drama, proto-feminist case study, and (most affectingly) child’s-eye view of adult trauma. Over the course of the film’s five-year trajectory, we see sons Bob and Kaka grow up before our eyes, their young dreams turning to disaffection (“I hate revolution now,” says Kaka in Lebanon) as the cost of opposition takes its toll on their parents. “Those days were beautiful,” cries Bob, remembering “our sweet days” in Syria, but as time passes, his young identity changes – personal, emotional and national.

Not so Raghda, for whom Syria remains her first love. “I started before the revolution,” she says, “and cannot abandon it now”, a truth which leaves Amer increasingly confused and angered. “Get back to being a mother… become a simple woman again,” he demands when his former soulmate proves disappointingly distant and depressed, the storm clouds of imprisonment still haunting her nightmares (“I can’t imagine what she went through,” says McAllister). But beneath the trauma is something stronger – a devotion to Syria that transcends all boundaries, familial and maternal. Time and again, Raghda is drawn back towards her homeland and the unfinished business to which she remains committed whatever the personal cost.

Dropping in and out of the family’s peripatetic lives, McAllister documents their changing struggles as a strange mix of family friend and televisual confessor. At times his presence feels intrusive; one sequence in which Amer demands access to a laptop, which Raghda has hidden to cut off contact with his mistress, makes the viewer an uncomfortable witness to the painful airing of private laundry. Worse still is the children’s acute awareness of their parents’ problems – the dream of mum and dad being reunited crumbling in the reality of exile. Yet through it all the bigger picture remains – the knowledge that all this interpersonal strife is the direct result of political oppression and (inter)national catastrophe. No matter how close he becomes to the family (“he’s not my uncle,” Bob is forced to explain at one point), McAllister somehow keeps our focus on the fact that this is all a microcosm of a more global crisis.

Deserving winner of the grand jury prize at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in August, A Syrian Love Story benefits from evocative use of music, including tracks from Le Trio Joubran, whose plucky contributions lend depth, tension and resonance to the unfolding drama. There is redemption here too, or at least the possibility of a better future, albeit distant. “Many waves take me to strange places,” says Raghda, “but inside me still, I have this hope… for humanity, for freedom, for my country.” In the midst of the current crisis, such hope is rare indeed.

See the original review on The Guardian website

© Geoffrey MacNab / The Independent / September 18, 2015

Heartbreaking portrait of a marriage unravelling

The director Sean McAllister travelled to Syria 18 months before the Arab Spring looking for a “real story” that reflected the political turmoil in the country. By chance, he met Amer Daoud, whose wife, Raghda, had been thrown in prison for writing a book criticising the government. Amer was a Palestinian freedom fighter and Raghda was a Syrian revolutionary. The couple, who met in prison, became the subjects of what first seemed like a conventional political documentary.

Then, after Raghda’s release, this remarkable film turned into something else. Shot over five years, it became a heartbreaking portrait of a marriage unravelling. It is testament to the trust the subjects place in McAllister that they allow him to document their most intimate, vulnerable moments. Their children are equally open. Given political asylum in France, Raghda’s self-esteem plummets and she becomes suicidal. Catastrophic events in Syria heighten her misery. Amer starts an affair with another woman. The ironies are obvious. In Syria, when she was in prison and they suffered forced separation, the bond between the couple seemed unbreakable but in exile in small-town France, their relationship falls apart.

See the original review on The Independent website

© Peter Bradshaw / The Guardian / September 17, 2015

A searing insight into a marriage under fire… This unmissable documentary uncovers the heartbreaking story of a couple whose relationship disintegrates as they flee the horrors of Syria

Sean McAllister’s documentary about a family of Syrian refugees in Europe would be compelling at any time. Now it is unmissable. This is about love, but it could as well be called A Syrian Rage Story or A Syrian Despair Story. It is the tragic portrait of a disintegrating marriage; the story of two people whose love has been hammered by fate, history and each other.

These are not refugees as we are encouraged to understand them by the nightly news: nameless poor people to whom the prosperous west can respond with pity or guilt. These refugees don’t want to be passive recipients of compassion, but active participants in their own destiny. Above all, they are angry. Their anger floods the screen.
McAllister begins his story in 2009, when Syria was being marketed to westerners as a glamorous, cosmopolitan new tourist destination with ancient culture and monuments as important as anything in Greece and Turkey. And so McAllister begins his movie with a brutal twist of irony, a subliminal flash-forward to a later reality in which our certainties about the Arab spring have been overtaken by the existence of Islamic State. In the capital Damascus, McAllister meets Amer Douad, a Palestinian activist from thea coastal town of Tartus who has a heart-rending story to tell. While in prison, Amer fell in love with a fellow inmate, Ragdha Hassan, a beautiful leftwing Syrian activist against the Assad regime. Now they have three children: Shadi, Kaka and Bob, but she is back in prison and Amer must raise them on his own. McAllister is present with his camera as day by day, week by week, Amer and the children lavish their love on the idea of an absent wife and mother. When Ragdha is finally freed, their joy is overwhelming.

But then McAllister is briefly imprisoned by the regime; his friendship makes Amer and Ragdha’s position in Syria untenable. They move, first to the Palestinian enclave of Yarmouk camp, outside Damascus, then to Lebanon, and finally to Paris, having been granted refugee status by the French government. But their marriage is coming apart and McAllister records its breakdown from 2009 to the present.

Raghda is suffering from post-traumatic stress at her brutal jail treatment; she is pierced with guilt at having effectively deserted her comrades’ struggle against Assad, and at becoming an irrelevance herself, washed up on a far shore away from a battle she considers crucial to her identity. Ragdha becomes filled with resentment and depression, and McAllister’s camera captures the way her face, once alight with beauty and fun, becomes clouded and pained. Amer’s face, too, becomes older: hunted, almost furtive, a man with secrets. The film allows us to consider the awful thought that the couple were happiest apart, when they had only the tragically exalted idea of each other. Love depended on prison. Now he accuses her of being impossible to live with, of being arrogant and simply nettled at her own loss of status. Amer’s love curdles into machismo as he demands Ragdha attend to the duties of motherhood. There are walkouts from the family home, suicide attempts and accusations of infidelity.

Incredibly, McAllister was there for a great deal of this. The scenes look real enough. It takes its toll on the children, although their son Kaka emerges as exceptionally perceptive and smart. As a little boy in Syria, he is asked by McAllister about the Assad tyranny: “Does it make you want to leave? Live somewhere else?” He replies: “No, fight.” His views as a teenager in Paris are very different. As for Amer, he begins by speaking to McAllister about Ragdha like this: “She is a strong woman; I am a very weak man.”

Perhaps he has foretold their destiny. But the heartwrenching thing is that her strength and his weakness – as he perceives it – might not have been a problem, had they been able to stay in Syria. Who can tell? It could have been the agony of Syria that destroyed their relationship, or it might have fallen apart in any case. McAllister and his camera might have accelerated the breakdown, though it is just as likely he provided valuable therapy. Even at the end, Amer and Ragdha clearly have feelings for each other. This is love among the ruins.

See the original review on The Guardian website

© Miriam Ali / Open Democracy / September 16, 2015

A Syrian Love Story is an intimate portrait of a Syrian family torn apart by war, especially moving and relevant in light of the continuing refugee crisis.

The film opens with shots that could be of a holiday, in a Syria long destroyed. The filmmaker, Sean McAllister (The Liberace of Baghdad, The Reluctant Revolutionary), is in Syria in 2009, visiting as part of a state initiative to drum up tourism. But he is looking for “gritty” stories, the real struggles of real people. Though some Syrians rebuff his enquiries, telling him to stick to the script and asking why he is—and by implication all western journalists—“always looking for something negative”, one night he meets Amer, who is keen on telling him about his imprisoned wife, Ragda. He has found his story.

Ragda and Amer met in Assad’s prisons: he had been a Palestinian freedom fighter and she was a Syrian revolutionary, and he saw her through a hole in his cell wall, bruised and bloodied from a beating by Assad’s thugs. They fell in love and four children later she has written a book telling their story, and is once again in prison. Amer speaks to Sean determined to get her out, but it is only after the ‘Arab Spring’ protests and mounting pressure from the west that she is released. They have a brief period of bliss, clearly very much in love, but as the protests devolve into war, Sean is arrested and his footage of the family confiscated, and they are forced to flee to Lebanon.

They are all unhappy in Lebanon. Ragda feels guilty at having “betrayed” the revolution she helped to start, feeling the need to fight but, as Amer says, torn between “being Che Guevara and a mother”. Amer wants to go to Europe; he sees no future for them since he cannot get work because he is not Lebanese and the children cannot attend school.

They embody two different responses to what became of the Syrian revolution: the fleeing father, only wanting “safe and quiet” futures for his family, the mother wanting to fight, to struggle, to win “the same future for them but in Syria,” whatever the price. And the price has been death, for many of their friends and family, and for hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

Over the course of several years, the film follows the couple’s journey, sharing key moments with them as their relationship and their country unravel. The family’s story, their personal trauma, is inextricable from that of a country torn apart. The war brings their differences to the fore until they become insurmountable, and their heartbreak has a profound impact on their growing boys—perhaps even more so than their parents’ imprisonment by Assad, or the war, or becoming a refugee. And yet they adapt, in their own ways.

The story is told almost tenderly but without falling into cliché, and our window onto Ragda and Amer’s lives, via Sean’s relationship with them, is intimate but not intrusive. Sean’s touch is light and as narrator he seems to recede into the background, even though in the process of documenting their lives he has also changed them. Though the camera is hand held giving it a low-budget feel, the intensity of emotion, the quick but calm pace and dramatic scoring mean the documentary views like a tense drama, heavily investing us in the choices the couple make and the different paths they choose.

Towards the end of the film, Amer wearily asks Sean why he’s still shooting when he has supposedly “finished”; but given what we have learned about Amer, perhaps he is just weary of having a life worth filming—the end of the film is the end of the story. For Ragda, however, the story seems to be just beginning.

See the original review on Open Democracy website

© Maria Duarte / Morning Star / September 2015

Intimate and moving doc, shot over five years, following one family fleeing Syria as refugees

AS WE continue to witness the worst refugee crisis since WWII, this powerful documentary by Sean McAllister puts a human face on the issue as it recounts the personal cost to one Syrian family. When the British film-maker first met Amer in 2009 in Syria, just before the Arab spring, his wife Raghda was a political prisoner while he was caring for their four sons alone. Filmed over the following five years, the film tells the poignant story of how they were torn apart by events and the untold pressures which affected their family and marriage.

Once released from jail Raghda and Amer, who met 15 years earlier in prison when she was a Syrian revolutionary and he was a Palestinian freedom fighter, were forced to flee for their lives with their children to Lebanon and then to France, where they were awarded political asylum in 2013.

This is another very candid and intimate portrait of an ordinary family battling to survive against all the odds by McAllister, who’s known for his frank film-making. But witnessing the marriage slowly imploding after overcoming such great hardships, along with the effects they have had on their children, at times feels voyeuristic.
While Amer embraced their new life in France for their children, Raghda could not cope watching events in Syria from afar. She felt like a traitor and desperately wanted to return to her home and her old life suffering a mental breakdown in the process.

This heart-wrenching film gives an idea of the human cost of seeking asylum in Western Europe. If this family could live safely in Syria, they would.

See the original review on Morning Star website

© Trevor Johnston / Time Out / September 15, 2015

Intimate and moving doc, shot over five years, following one family fleeing Syria as refugees

As refugees flee from the Syrian conflict in their thousands, this intimate doc captures the experiences of a single family battered by truly daunting circumstances. Before the outbreak of the civil war, filmmaker Sean McAllister encountered husband Amer and infant son Bob, hoping that wife and mother Raghda – a pro-democracy activist – would return from a brutal prison term. International pressure prompted her release, but that proves to be just the start of an odyssey which sees McAllister himself briefly jailed, and the family fleeing via Lebanon to a new start in the West. Filmed over a five-year period, ‘A Syrian Love Story’ presents us first with the gnawing anxiety of life under the ruthless Al-Assad regime, then the fresh challenges of a fractious, painful exile where damaged minds take time to heal, before we finally see the household become distant observers to the destruction of their homeland and the deaths of many friends. That a loving family can carry something positive from this harrowing trajectory is a tribute to their courage and forbearance, but also to McAllister’s compassionate resilience in standing by them. An essential act of witnessing; a crucial conduit to understanding.

See the original review on Time Out website

© Nia Childs / HeyUGuys / September 18, 2015

For anyone who has felt outraged by the dehumanisation of refugees across the media, A Syrian Love Story is a welcome tonic. Filmed over 5 years, the film documents the relationship between Raghda and Amer. Ragdha is released from prison after serving time for her activism against the Assad regime in Syria, and this is where the film begins.

Her youngest son has passed milestones without her there to witness them, her teenage boys are growing, and Amer has longed for his wife’s return. Having met in prison in their youth, Ragdha and Amer are no strangers to the drama that such a conflict creates. But as time passes, and the family leave Syria for Lebanon (director Sean McAllister was actually arrested during filming) Radgha is wrenched from a country that is part of her very being. Syria is as much as part of her identity as being a mother or a wife, she’s ruined from her experiences in prison and it’s clear that she’s dissatisfied in her marriage to Amer. She is fighting to maintain her identity in a system where having an identity is dangerous.

Perhaps it’s easy coming from a country where conflict is never on the doorstep, not to comprehend or even consider the effects of such an unnatural environment on a relationship. So often when war is depicted in cinema, when it is intended to be viewed by an audience who will probably never have those experiences, to whom war is an abstract, other thing, there is the recounting of the horrors of the battleground, of the bombs and the bodies. It’s easy to forget about the normal ups and downs of life in general, but romantic relationships still need to be maintained and worked on.

McAllister casts a non-judgmental eye on a couple and their three children, who are simply fighting to exist. It would be easy to sentimentalise or dramatise, but McAllister avoids doing so, and his measured attitude allows his subjects to tell their story in their own way. Tragedies of war cannot be measured through a body count, and McAllister tells a story that’s universal in its nature, yet unique through his ability amongst all the madness to latch on to something that in comparison to the broader story may seem small, but when viewed in close up, is just as sad and dramatic as things are when they are happening to us.

It’s a simple idea, a simple story with moments of tenderness that pierce through the chaos, and is a reminder there is humanity in the most inhumane of conditions. A wonderful, powerful piece of filmmaking.

See the original review on HeyUGuys website

© The Hollywood Reporter / March 12, 2015

This journalistic film offers scenes from a dissolving marriage against the background of a Syria in flames

Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, Sean McAllister’s A Syrian Love Story is another remarkable chapter in the English director’s journalistic forays into the Middle East’s hottest hot spots. After risking life and limb in war-torn Iraq (The Liberace of Baghdad) and Yemen during the Arab Spring massacres (The Reluctant Revolutionary), this film finds him in Syria during the revolution. Close in spirit to the intimate portraiture of Liberace, it traces the disintegration of a marriage and its effect on the couple’s children with heart-breaking candor. Shot over the course of four years against the backdrop of Middle East upheaval and a displaced family, it also furnishes timely look behind the cover stories on Europe’s immigration drama, offering a glimpse into the anguishing reasons for leaving one’s homeland. The many plot twists should abet festival word-of-mouth and let it coast to more pubcasters like the BBC, Swedish and Danish TV, who co-produced. Amer and Raghda first met when they were political prisoners in Syria in the mid-Nineties. He was a Palestinian freedom fighter and she a left-wing Syrian activist. Now, because of a book she has published about their prison love story, Raghda is back in jail and Amer desperate to get her out. This appears to be his motivation – at least initially – in talking so openly to the filmmaker about his furious opposition to president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. When the revolution breaks out in the spring of 2011, it gives him more impetus to demand Raghda’s freedom, and with the U.S. State Department pushing for the release of political prisoners, she suddenly returns home.

As she basks in the warmth of her family and Amer’s love and loyalty, her story seems to have reached a happy ending – but that doesn’t take into account the fact that she and he are two very different people, caught in the vise of history

Here again McAllister plays the role of the (mostly) off-screen reporter who is so thoroughly embedded in the life of his subjects that he seems like a member of the family. Though at first the story is told through Amer’s sad eyes and his halting but poetic English, Raghda eventually is given a voice and emerges as an extraordinary woman in her own right, torn – as Amer perceptively remarks – between being Che Guevara and a mother. The climate of fear and danger reaches its peak when McAllister himself is briefly arrested by Syrian security forces. His camera is seized with the compromising interviews on it, and the family is forced to flee to Lebanon. But this is just the beginning of their odyssey, which is as much emotional as it is geographic. The final decisions they make, while offering closure to the film, are impossible to judge.

At various times, Amer finds himself in charge of their four sons, who range from angry and love-sick teenagers to the two younger boys, who will play a major role in the film. Little Bob, whose independence is flagged by liking to wear his hair long, is a firebrand who misses his mom, but is washed along by forces he can’t control. His intensely bright 10-year-old brother Kaka becomes politically radicalized as the years roll by.

As always, McAllister’s filming is fast and light, and the quality of the video photography (he is his own cameraman) is less important than the passion that goes into the story-telling. As befits the introspective marital subject, the style here is quieter than before but still swift-moving, thanks to an injection of energetic jump cuts by editor Matthew Scholes.

11:08 AM PDT 8/6/2015 by Deborah Young
See the original review on Hollywood Reporter website