VOD film review: A Syrian Love Story
Helen Archer | On 11, Feb 2016
Director: Sean McAllister
Watch A Syrian Love Story online in the UK: BFI Player+ / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Sean McAllister’s A Syrian Love Story documents five years in the life of a family torn apart by war, as they flee the Assad regime and attempt to rebuild a life for themselves in exile from their country. McAllister has unusual access to their private moments of joy and pain, and the outcome is a thought-provoking, moving, and unforgettable work.
We first meet Amer Douad, a Palestinian activist, in 2009, on the streets of a bustling and lively Damascus. He is looking after his four young boys, Shadi, Fadi, Kaka and Bob, and awaiting the return of his wife, Raghda Hassan, who has been imprisoned for speaking out against Assad. This is nothing new for the family – Amer and Radha met and fell in love when they were placed in adjoining cells some years earlier, his first sight of her a swollen, battered face behind the hole of a wall.
The family struggle without her, looking forward to rare phone calls yet living with constant anxiety about her welfare in a brutal prison system, where horrific beatings are dished out on a daily basis. When she is released, early on in the film, their happiness at having her home is overwhelming.
But it doesn’t last long.
Soon, the authorities learn that McAllister is filming, and he is arrested, and the family must flee. They become unmoored, seeking refuge in a camp outside Damascus, then later in Lebanon, before eventually (the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly) being accepted by France.
It soon becomes clear that Raghda has been deeply traumatised by what she has endured in prison, and by the family’s situation as a whole. Her mental health deteriorates, and by the time they get to France, depression and PTSD takes over. Her anger permeates each scene, as she sits with her family in tiny rooms, chain smoking, drinking, and arguing. She and Amer, once so deeply in love, seem unable to communicate, and grow apart.
Their boys, meanwhile, also struggle with the memories of their childhood. For Bob, the youngest, Damascus seems very distant. He vaguely recalls their garden, a tree, while the older boys remember busy streets, filled with shops and bars, friends and neighbours. Their growing realisation that it is, in a very real sense, a place that they can’t go back to – not because they are exiled, but because it no longer exists – is harrowing. Those streets, that garden – all is rubble now. Their friends and neighbours are dead.
For Raghda, the deep pull of home is not merely about a city or a garden – she harbours a guilt that is rooted in the fact she gave up the fight, abandoned her comrades. True revolutionary blood runs through her veins, and though it is to the detriment of her family life, she cannot shake her sense of duty. “She is a strong woman. I am a very weak man,” says Amer, who is the one constant, stable presence in his children’s lives.
That this family love each other deeply is not in doubt. The film shows how they are torn apart by circumstances, by geography and politics and violence. These are not people who want to be seen as victims, who desire western charity. The tragedy is that what they do want, the simple things most people take for granted – self-determination, a community, their own identity – is impossible, because they inhabited a certain place at a certain time. A Syrian Love Story confirms with clarity that the scars of war are profound and immeasurable.
A Syrian Love Story is available on BFI Player+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription – with a 30-day free trial.