A Syrian Love Story: narration of a subject or subjects of narration?

The critically acclaimed documentary, A Syrian Love Story, by Sean McAllister, follows a couple of ‘refugees’ from Syria, and their children, through their journey to France. The film-maker’s choice of a personal standpoint to show their story provides multidimensional insights into their lives and the emotional and intellectual toll of displacement. But while this inspired film challenges stereotypes usually endured by refugees, Camille Jacob, PhD student and member of the Francophone Africa cluster, wonders about the narrative it offers.

 

Sean McAllister’s documentary of the relationship between a Syrian and a Palestinian activist through the Arab Springs, revolution, civil war and displacement is timely and pertinent. However, its main strength lies in moving away from the one-dimensional show of the atrocities of the civil war and focusing purely on the family.

Amer and Raghda met and fell in love in prison; after their release they married and had children. Raghda wrote a book about their story, which landed her back into prison. As filming starts, Amer is anxiously trying to bring her home, and hopes that accepting to be filmed will hasten the process. We intermittently follow the trials of the family for five years as they move fifteen times, within and outside Syria, and watch international events unfold and crash into their lives.

What makes it so interesting is that it asks many questions without providing many answers. This documentary’s approach is not that of a little ‘show of horrors’, riding on the sensationalist impact of detailing prison abuse, routine humiliation by various administrations, or struggles of integration as refugees in a part of France with surging Front National votes. These ordeals are mentioned, glimpsed in the background, causes of pain and loss, but the focus is on Amer, Raghda, Kaka and Bob. They are portrayed first and foremost as individuals, as a family evolving around as a mother/father/sons relationships.

On the surface, their “refugee story” is a successful one: they are safe and living in a beautiful part of France, and eight-year-old Bob proudly claims that he is “not Arabic [sic], but French”. And yet the family is still torn apart and the overwhelming mood of the film is one of loss.

In filming this story, McAllister effectively decentres from the outraged cry at the plight of Syrians and of refugees, which has been covered in many news reports and documentaries. Avoiding a one-dimensional interpretation of the family’s distress, he sidesteps easy solutions, mirroring Kaka’s reflections on the revolution.

The rage and anger showed during the opening fifteen minutes of the film eventually turn to a lingering sense of helplessness. As the director himself says in an interview with the BBC, ‘they’d been dreaming of freedom and in this bizarre kind of way, this was freedom’[1]. All members of the family are searching for meaning, wondering at the role of memory in defining themselves, trying to come to terms with feeling like an outsider or a prisoner in a country, in a revolution, in a relationship.

The film also touches on the issue of gender, and especially the impact of conflict and displacement. Amer’s descriptions of his wife shift from the admiring ‘she is a strong woman’ to the resentful ‘why can’t she become a simple woman again!’ This echoes a recent string of reports by newspapers such as The Guardian[2], pointing out the additional challenges faced by women as refugees, or in times of conflict. But here again the documentary simply raises the issue and leaves for viewers to think about it, amidst the myriad other problems the couple face.

Yet, beyond the (indisputably necessary) drive for the film to make sure viewers “can no longer watch the Calais Crisis on TV news and just see ‘swarms’ or ‘floods'”[3], this documentary also yields discussion points for social researcher and activists. Firstly, how does the language we use affect our interactions and therefore our research? The contrast is here to be made with Joshua Oppenheimer’s Act of Killing and Look of Silence. Oppenheimer, like McAllister, has lived for years in the country his work focuses on (Indonesia), but he uses Indonesian to communicate, and films individuals around him speaking their own language. In A Syrian Love Story, facts and feelings are explained by the family in English, a language which none of them converse fluently in[4].

Maybe the process of subtitling itself is more problematic for non-Arabic speakers. Maybe the possibility of speaking Arabic directly would have allowed Raghda, Amer and Kaka to fall back onto well-rehearsed discourses, where English lets them construct meaning.  Maybe they are “using [him] and a projected audience to help make sense of the world they find themselves in”[5]. Or maybe they are restricted to the director’s questions and words.

This links to the issue of voice and recognition. While giving a voice to the family, A Syrian Love Story also mainly gives a voice to McAllister. By his own admission, he aims to be a ‘fly in the soup’, not aiming to film what would have happened without him, but what happens because of him, or thanks to him[6]. Raghda mentions her frustration at the men around her focusing on their own pain, and her inability to express/get some attention to her own. Did we see what Raghda, Amer, Kaka, Bob wanted to say, or only what McAllister wanted to show?

 

The documentary will be available for watching during 23 days here.

 

[1] BBC World Service (2015) ‘Outlook: Syria – portrait of a marriage’, podcast published 17/09/15

[2] See for example http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/31/women-in-calais-camps-i-have-to-focus-on-how-i-can-stay-alive

[3] McAllister (2015), ‘Q&A with director Sean McAllister’, http://asyrianlovestory.com/interviews

[4] I recognise that “fluently” is a contested term. Here, I mean the ability for the individual to express their thoughts directly in English, rather than in their first language (here Arabic) before translating them into English.

[5] McAllister (2015), ‘Q&A with director Sean McAllister’, http://asyrianlovestory.com/interviews

[6] BBC World Service 2015.

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