When filmmaker Sean McAllister travelled to Syria in 2009, before the Arab Spring, Bashar al-Assad’s government wanted him to make a documentary that would attract foreign tourists by highlighting the country’s natural beauty, culture and history. McAllister, who has made several documentaries examining the effects of revolution, war and displacement on ordinary people in the Middle East, obviously had other ideas: the first couple of minutes of his new film A Syrian Love Story detail his displeasure at being herded around with a pack of fellow filmmakers before he breaks off to look for his own story. And he finds one fairly quickly, by the looks of things, when he meets Amer in the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, who is caring for three children while his wife Raghda is locked up as a political prisoner. It is revealed that the couple first met in prison 15 years ago, and fell in love after they communicated for months through a secret hole they made between their cells. Now Raghda has been locked up for speaking out against al-Assad’s regime, and in some early scenes that tug at the heart strings we see the effect this has had on her two youngest children, four-year-old Bob and fourteen-year-old Kaka, both of whom appear wise beyond their years.
McAllister’s documentary follows the family for the next five years, into 2015. Amer seizes the opportunity during the Arab Spring to campaign for Raghda’s release, and she is subsequently freed by the authorities. Things briefly look promising when the family is reunited, but then the filmmaker himself is arrested by the authorities – it made the national news in the UK at the time – and the family are forced to flee to Lebanon, where cracks in Amer and Raghda’s marriage begin to appear (they may of course have been there for many years, but it’s the first sign of problems within this documentary). While in Lebanon Raghda uses Facebook to communicate with other revolutionaries, but despite holding similar opinions about the regime in Syria Amer’s taste for the fight appears to be dwindling, and the intimate access given to McAllister, who has become by this point a family friend, means that we witness an increasing number of arguments between man and wife while also gaining an understanding of a few unresolved issues that are gnawing away at the pair. A year later and they are living in France, having successfully sought asylum as political refugees, and the film catches up with them repeatedly between 2012 and 2015, examining their new lives in a safer country as well as significant developments occurring within the family. ‘I’m French…’ says Bob, now eight, ‘not English, not Syrian!’, just before we see young adult Kaka sipping from a glass of rosé, the suggestion being that the men of the family have found it easier (though not easy) to settle in Europe.
The title can be read in two ways. On the one hand the film is about Amer’s relationship with Raghda (and to an extent their relationships with their children). On the other hand it is about Raghda’s love for her homeland, the way she constantly feels its pull, and the way that being away from Syria adds to her unhappiness. The film shows the emotional stress and trauma that is caused by the family’s migration, and is of course an extremely timely and relevant film given the current refugee crisis and the situation in Syria. The kids use social media to stay in touch with events in their homeland too, as well as to check on the welfare of their friends. At one point they show the filmmaker photos of the various people they knew that have subsequently died, while eldest son Shadi shares a video of a (pro-Bashar) girl he used to date who has since been killed; he traces his finger across her face on the screen in a powerful and touching scene.
Throughout McAllister films his subjects with a hand-held camera, adding to the sense of intimacy as he sits in the various living rooms and bedrooms with family members. Over time he gets to know them very well, and is able to speak candidly and ask tough questions without necessarily causing the adults or the kids to raise their defences. He can do this because they trust him, and they are right to do so: this is a film that is as honest about them and their situation as it is moving, and due to its length it offers a far more rounded portrait of a refugee family and the issues they face than anything I have seen on the news or in newspapers during the past few months. Made with the help of the BFI for the BBC’s current Storyville season, A Syrian Love Story is currently in selected cinemas in the UK but is also available to watch for free on the BBC’s iPlayer, if you can access it. You should try and see it as soon as possible.
Directed by: Sean McAllister.
Written by: Sean McAllister.
Cinematography: Sean McAllister.
Editing: Matt Scholes.
Music: Terence Dunn.
Running Time: 76 minutes.