A Syrian Love Story tells the story of a Syrian family, whose lives are torn apart by the repression and turmoil of the Syrian revolution, and their enforced exile from home. Mark Boothroyd went to the showing at the Frontline Club earlier this week, which was followed by Q&A with Sean, the documentary maker, and Amer who’s family the film follows. A Syrian Love Story will be shown on Monday 28 September at 10pm on BBC4
Sean McAllister filmed the documentary over five years, starting before the outbreak of the revolution. While on an Assad regime propaganda tour in 2009, he went searching for the real Syria, behind the dictatorships façade. In a Damascus bar Sean found Amer, who wanted to talk to him about his wife.
Amer Daoud, a Palestinian freedom fighter with the PLO, is married to Raghda Hasan, a Syrian communist revolutionary from the Alawite sect. They met in prison, both detained by the regime for their political beliefs. Falling in love while in prison, they married upon release and started a family, but Raghda was arrested again for writing a book about their story.
Their lives reflects the complex social fabric of Syria, a much richer more diverse picture than that painted in the media. The family live in Tartous, a regime loyal area. The children play by the sea in beautiful sunshine, while every shop has as picture of Bashar Al-Assad in the window, and the mukhabarat (secret police) are everywhere, looking for any signs of dissent.
When Sean meets Amer and his children – Shadi, Kaka and Bob – Raghda is still in prison. The outbreak of the revolution brings hope. The family move to Yarmouk in Damascus, as Tartous is no longer safe for political activists. Amer joins in organising protests in central Damascus. They carry pictures of Raghda, demanding her release. Sean stays with the family on and off through this time, capturing intimate glimpses of a family taking part in the revolution.
Kaka joins the protests aged 14, and gets detained and beaten along with the adults. No allowance is made by the regime for youth. Thousands take to the streets every Friday, and the numbers of martyrs spiral as regime repression increases.
Eventually Raghda is released as part of a small amnesty for political prisoners and the family is reunited. These are the early, hopeful days of the revolution. Then Sean is arrested by the regime. He’s detained for five days. Every night he hears the screams of Syrians tortured by the mukhabarat.
The regime has Sean’s camera, on it is footage of Amer and Raghda. The family are forced to flee again, this time to Lebanon. Life as refugees, living in poverty and without hope for the future takes its toll. Raghda is tormented, torn between her desire to stay with her family, and her love for her country and her feelings of duty to the revolution. Raghda disappears back to Syria to work for the opposition. Amer is distraught. The children grow increasingly bitter at the price they have had to pay for supporting the revolution.
Commenting on the family’s situation in the Q&A Sean said: “[Amer] moved house 16 times during the making of this film. We don’t know how many people live like this. There were times I turned up and they hadn’t eaten for days.”
Eventually the family are reunited and are accepted as refugees by France due to Raghda’s status as a political activist. Settling in the quiet southern town of Albi, they start a new life. In a sense, they are free. They cannot escape past traumas though, and the devastation of the civil war back home. In 2014 they look back through Sean’s old footage, and pictures from their life in Damascus and Tartous. Shadi points out all his friends who have been killed back in Yarmouk.
Amer and Raghda’s relationship deteriorates, as does Raghda’s mental health due to post-traumatic stress from her time in prison. Sean is their one connection to Syria, the one person who can understand what they’ve been through, and in spite of their visible pain, he is called upon to adjudicate and record arguments and fights. These intimate scenes are heartbreaking to watch, and its testament to Sean’s unique relationship with the family, and Amer and Raghda’s background as political activists, that allows these moments to be captured.
Through everything Bob’s presence lights up the screen, his incessant innocent questioning of his parents, brothers and Sean provides smiles amid the heartbreak. However his sense of self does not escape the mental trauma; speaking to the camera while on an outing to an old French hill town, he declares he is no longer Arab or Syrian, but French.
The family eventually breaks apart, but despite the trauma the film ends on a quietly hopeful note. Amer finally feels at peace in Albi, and Raghda is now living in Turkey, working for the Syrian opposition, reunited with the revolution. The children are integrating into French life, finding passions and past times. The events in Syria hang over them, but they do not dominate as they did the years before.
At the Q&A after the film showing, Sean spoke about how the release of the film happened to coincide with the massive influx of Syrian refugees into Europe, leading to it being taken up and shown by BBC4, something unlikely to happen in different circumstances.
Amer talked about his work in France. He is part of a network of activists welcoming refugees, attempting to find them housing and work, and integrate them into French society.
Amer commented on the different reception given to Syrian refugees in the last few years; “In the 2006 war in Lebanon, one hundred thousands Lebanese people came to Damascus. I was one of them go to the border, we welcome them take them to houses, give them food and money. When we go to Lebanon, many times people want to beat me in the street, I can’t get a job, Hezbollah they want to kill me because they know I’m against the regime.” When asked about his status he drily remarked “I am Palestinian, I have no paper, I was born in Jerusalem, the first paper I had is French.”
I asked Amer was he still in touch with people in Syria who were trying to carry on the revolutions ideals and principles. He replied “Everyday I am in touch with my friends in Damascus, Aleppo, all over the country. I know more than is shown in the media, and believe me it’s worse, it’s worse than is shown in the media.”
Another person posed the question to Sean, would military intervention have improved the situation in Syria? Sean answered that he didn’t know how any military intervention would have turned out; “maybe more support for the Free Syrian Army would have made a difference. I don’t know how it could be a bigger mess.”
Amer commented “nothing was done to protect the people, no safe zone. They promised too much for four years, but gave nothing.”
When asked about Raghda, Amer replied “I love her, I still love her, she is my comrade, she is my life. I met her in prison, in completely bad situation. We were lost, and we found each other.”