Thursday, 29 October 2015

On demand: "A Syrian Love Story"

A Syrian Love Story is another of 2015's many reminders of who refugees - in this case, those Syrians pouring into Europe to escape the turmoil wrought by the Assad regime back home - really are: breakable hearts, vulnerable souls, perishable flesh and blood. It derives from a story told to the British documentarist Sean McAllister in a bar about a love born in captivity. The storyteller was Amer, a sometime Palestinian freedom fighter who met his wife-to-be Raghda, a Syrian revolutionary, when they came to share adjacent cells in a holding block; a small hole in the wall allowed them to gaze upon one another's bruises. As we join Amer, just before the Arab Spring of 2011, Raghda was back in prison for writing a book deemed critical of the Assad regime, leaving her husband to raise their sons alone.

What's so compulsive about that which follows is that we witness the effects of the next few years of dislocation, with its changeable parenting arrangements and palpably growing marital tensions, on those self-same kids as they pass into adolescence. We could be watching Boyhood, if its subjects had been raised somewhere other than a haven of white western liberalism: the eldest goes from shyly ambivalent on the subject of Assad to openly denouncing him, and then - as news of the deaths of several friends filters in - to wishing none of this had ever come to pass in his lifetime. (How do you process that much loss at so young an age?) The film will prove more vivid yet in observing the effect of this chaos on the parents - particularly on Raghda, who looks to age thirty years in just five: nervily ramping up her cigarette consumption, she visibly loses weight, and is frequently caught in a depressive haze. In a mere matter of moments - and the film compresses an awful amount of lived experience into its 74 minutes - this woman loses the light and fire in her eyes. 

McAllister gets us in close to see it. He goes out to eat with his subjects; he's there, leaning in, as Raghda makes illicit calls home from jail; and then again as the marriage starts to sour. (His often blunt questions, delivered from just off-camera in a Northern burr, are those only a trusted family friend might get away with.) Everyone appears to be living in a permanent state of separation anxiety: McAllister himself was arrested by Assad's security forces, and it was when some of his footage was confiscated, notionally incriminating his subjects further, that Amer and Raghda elected to flee the country for the relative safety of Lebanon. You could, I suppose, argue that McAllister got so close that he endangered his subjects' lives - providing you don't suppose these lives were already endangered. Equally, it's evident that he needed to get this close to tell this story as emotively as he has.

It becomes sadder still in its latter stages as the family passes through Paris - "the city of love", as McAllister points out - to the South of France, where the film enters its most painful configuration yet as a portrait of a separation. Many couples have married young only to find co-existence harder than it looks - but here, it's as though the unified political position the lovers once occupied has broken up like tectonic plates. Amer, visibly hardening in exile, attempts to embrace cosmopolitan European life by starting an affair, while Raghda sinks into a spiral of self-loathing at having left her comrades behind. The quality that brought these two together - resistance - is gradually broken down; the rubble of Palmyra is as nothing compared to what they're carrying around in their hearts. By its very nature, A Syrian Love Story makes for devastating viewing, but there could hardly have been a better illustration of how hard it is, when your homeland is no longer your home, to hold it together: marriage, family, friendships, your general happiness and well-being.

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