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Ossama Mohammed is one of Syria’s most important directors, whose auteur style of filmmaking is responsible for films ranging from trenchant, dark satirical commentaries of regime rule to quasi-documentaries that defy conventional genre distinctions. Nujum al-Nahar (Stars of the Day, aka Stars in Broad Daylight 1988) is perhaps the most politically critical film ever to have been made in Syria. An insightful and revelatory critique, the film’s plot is a thinly disguised metaphor for political power and for the now deceased President Hafiz al-Assad’s ‘cult’ of personality. In the film, Mohammed depicts the moral crisis of a rural ‘Alawi family, some of whose members have moved to the city and succumbed to urban life and corrupt officialdom. As characters, they represent the regime’s vulgarity and brutality. The main male protagonist – who looks uncannily like the former ruler – is the controlling, manipulative, stingy brother and the de facto patriarch of the family, an association that explicitly connects patriarchal family life to martial rule and political violence. Drawing on his intimate knowledge of sectarian and regional specificities, Mohammed parodies the emptiness and tedium of official discourse, at the same time lamenting the beautiful but ultimately unlivable countryside. Overrun with petty familial disputes and patriarchal violence, rural life offers no refuge, even while collective fantasies of national belonging have themselves been reduced to vapid slogans – devoid of the hope or sense of community that animated the early days of post-colonial rule. These themes – patriarchal violence and rural disrepair, in particular – also motivate Mohammed’s stunning and brave first film, Khutwa, Khutwa (Step by Step, 1979), an experimental work he completed for his MA in Moscow. In this first major effort, Mohammed blurred the conventional boundaries between documentary and fiction, producing a poetic tour de force whose aesthetic and political sensibilities have continued to inspire new generations of Syrian filmmakers.
Mohammed’s attention to the juxtaposition of beauty and violence in everyday life also finds expression in Sunduq al-Dunya (or ‘Camera Obscura’ – oddly translated as Sacrifices in the English version, 2002), another account of familial conflict in Syria’s coastal countryside. Less overtly political than Nujum al-Nahar, Sunduq al-Dunya focuses on a grandfather who wants to bestow his name upon one of his three grandchildren but dies before fulfilling his wish, consigning the children to a life of namelessness. Each grandchild finds meaning and pleasure in different ways over the course of a quasi-allegorical tale of human frailty, political power and the seductions of violence. The first child practices restraint and composure, the second, love, and the third, cruelty and caprice. Again we see power corrupting, even as the countryside, the filmmaker and the audience bear witness to life’s beauty and brutality. Symbols of fecundity and openness suggest the power of regeneration, while simultaneously producing a sense of being boxed in, not unlike an actual camera obscura, in which light from an external scene passes through the aperture into an enclosure, generating an inverted image.
In all of his films, Mohammed uses the symbols and language of political power to subvert official systems of signification. He brings to his cinematic object a profound sense of displacement borne of his knowing a place extremely well. This displacement has now found tragic expression in the director’s own forced exile since 2011, as well as in his artistic efforts to grapple with the shift from peaceful protests to catastrophic war.
Ma’ al-Fidda (Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, 2014) is a chronicle toggling between political possibility and agonising grief. Divided into two parts, the film first draws on Syrians’ cell-phone footage of peaceful demonstrations countered by regime ruthlessness to tell a story of ongoing courage and perseverance in the face of relentless efforts to destroy them both. In the second part the film narrates the director’s Facebook friendship with a young Syrian-Kurdish woman (Wiam Simav Bedirxan), who passes film footage of the destruction of her city of Homs on to him. Simav registers not only the inhumanity of war, but also her attempts to cling to the revolution’s promise. Like the shots of the clothes peg clasping to a makeshift line, Simav is hanging on – to the memories of her family, to the pleasure of music she happens to discover in an abandoned home, to a sense of the ordinary achieved in washing the laundry, to the hopes of a better future for the city’s remaining children, and to her felt duty to bring the images of war to the attention of the global public. Maimed and burned animals, bloodied bodies retrieved from decimated streets, scenes of irrevocable loss – these are some of the horrific images from the film that continue to generate controversy. Silvered Water garners acclaim, but also stimulates critical and necessary debate, about the role and obligations of cinema, the representation of victimisation, and the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Mohammed himself probes some of these issues in extradiegetic moments of questioning ‘what is beauty?’ and ‘what is cinema?’ drawing our attention to the artifice of the medium, to the beauty lurking in the grotesque, and to efforts to recover stories of human resilience and connection in the face of annihilating violence. This is ultimately a film that cannot be reduced either to its shocking scenes or to any romanticisation of resistance. It is, as the English subtitle suggests, a ‘self-portrait’ of 1,001 Syrians and the director, a film whose poetry resides in its unwavering insistence on the human capacity to make something new – as well as to destroy.
Mary R. Morton Professor of Political Science and the College, and Co-Director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory at the University of Chicago.
In 2015, the Prince Claus Fund honoured Ossama Mohammed and 10 more artists for their pioneering work in culture and development.
Prince Claus Awards Committee:
Filmmaker Ossama Mohammed’s bold films examine power, conflict and humanity. He has played a central role in Syria’s film and film production scene for several decades. Through diverse, innovative methods, from dramatic satire to, reflections from exile and street recordings, he creates unflinching, profound and poetic insights into the Syrian context.