Damascus Spring

Experimental video art and documentary in Syria, in the context of its contemporary art scene.
By Charlotte Bank | Jun 2007

While Lebanese video art and experimental documentary has been on the agenda of the international contemporary art scene for some years now, the country’s neighbor Syria has largely been overlooked. On the occasion of the 2003 exhibition "Disorientation" at the House of World Cultures in Berlin showing contemporary art from the Middle East, no Syrian visual artists were included, as the art scene of Damascus was seen as anachronistic and out of touch with the international visual arts’ scene by curator Jack Persekian [1]. Where artists in other countries of the Middle East have been making extended use of modern digital media, the Syrian art scene was seen as lacking behind, using only traditional techniques. Issa Touma, an Aleppo based photographer and art gallery owner has even compared the current art scene in Syria with Europe in the late 1880’s and the first appearance of impressionism. In his opinion, the traditional artists and critics are hesitant towards new developments and unwilling to give new artists a chance to develop or even show their work.

All this was true and in some respects it still applies, but only partly. The internet has also arrived in Syria, although more than a decade later than in other countries, and is now giving young artists a new source of inspiration. It has served as an important tool for a young Damascene gallerist, Firas Chehab, in his efforts to promote new media art. His gallery "Palette Art House" houses works of young Syrian artists and he has initiated a project giving young artists working with video a chance to develop skills in this field. Allying himself with the French trained documentarist and filmmaker Joude Gorani among others, he collected a group of nine young artists and offered them the opportunity to participate in a workshop with the aim of producing nine video works. Although the difficulty of finding funding for this kind of projects is a constant obstacle, initiatives like Chehab’s are often the source of new media art production in Syria. There is no institutional support for video art or experimental documentary and young people are left very much to themselves to experiment with the inevitable pitfalls this entails. Initiatives like Firas Chehab’s are of great importance for the development of a serious video art scene.

Where video art is still very much in a stage of development, experimental video documentary made by Syrian documentarists has been screened internationally on several occasions. Documentary in Syria is very much indebted to Omar Amiralay, and his name is mentioned by all young documentarists with great respect, even if their approaches are closer to the contemporary practice of experimental video documentary as we see it from documentarists from other Arab countries. One of these young artists is Diana El Jeiroudi, who besides running a production company works as an independent documentarist. Her video "The Pot" addresses pregnancy as a social phenomenon. In it, she lets young Syrian women tell how their pregnancy affected their own as well as society’s perception of them as individuals. Traditional gender roles are examined in a number of documentaries, such as "Fragile Wall" by Ghassan Zakariya and "Women’s Talk" by Samir Barkawi, a TV director who in his spare time produces short films and documentaries. Both these films deal with women’s lives in rural Syria, addressing issues like premature brides and the general low social status of many women in these areas. In all of these works a commitment and a will to influence change in Syrian society is strongly present. Another short video worth mentioning, that deals with a highly sensitive political issue, is "The Path" by Inas Hakki. It tells the stories of students from the occupied Golan Heights who face isolation from their families when they leave their home towns to study in Damascus. Only a group of religious authority holders is allowed to cross the border on a regular basis and thus becomes the only link between the students and their families. Other political issues have been dealt with in the works of another young documentarist, Meyar Al-Roumi, who is now based in France. He has shown the repressive character of Syrian society and its effect on individuals in works like "The Club of the Future" and "A Silent Cinema".

The experimental documentary scene in Damascus comprises quite a number of TV people, since this is often the only possibility to receive training in filmmaking. Even though the Syrian state controlled film production shows an impressive list of artistically valuable films, directors have to wait many years to get permission to produce a new film and so many chose the way through TV production. The disadvantage of this strong influence of TV production methods lies in the danger of producing works that resembles TV dramas in style. For this reason it is necessary that more young artists and filmmakers get the chance to study abroad, says Joud Said, a young filmmaker recently returned from five years of study in France. As he puts it, the artistic climate in Syria is simply too sleepy. The state takes no action and the people are too reluctant to experiment. In a country where independent intellectual and artistic search is not encouraged, choosing a way that is different from the mainstream means embarking on a long and difficult journey full of hardship. Joud teaches at the film department of the Higher Institute of Dramatic Art in Damascus, where many of his students are showing a dramatic lack of serious commitment and an unwillingness to read and do research.

Given these difficult and often depressing perspectives, it seems even more laudable that a group of committed young artists and filmmakers have chosen to go against the general comfortable climate of the recent relative economic prosperity of the middle classes in Syria, where large-scale consumption of mass-produced pop-culture is becoming the rule. Among these young artists are people with diplomas from countries like France, Greece, Armenia and Moldavia. This leaves hope for the future, as they are certain to bring fresh impulses to the Syrian art scene.

<line>Note:</line>

  1. Exhibition catalogue "Disorientation", House of World Cultures, Berlin 2003, p. 96.


Charlotte Bank

Free lance writer, archaeologist and art historian. Lecturer in Arabic and Islamic art, and culture and event organizer.

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