The opening scene of Syrian director Omar Amiralay’s documentary ‘A Flood in Baath Country,’ portrays children in military attire in a classroom in a small rural village chanting, “We, the pioneers of the Baath, salute our leader Bashar al Assad,” followed by, “We are the voice of the proletariat.”
There was not much commentary in Amiralay’s film rather, he allowed the pictures to speak for themselves and to recount the story of the Syrian village of Al-Mashi that is governed by a clan leader and Member of Parliament, assisted by his nephew who is the head-teacher of a school and an official of the Baath party.
The village represents a reduced example of the forty years of Baath rule and how this one party has maintained control and planted its ideology into the minds of Syrians from an early stage through instruction and repetition. One of the film’s ironies is a scene in which students are reading a text about freedom by Mostafa Lotfi El Manfalouti.
The documentary was filmed and produced in 2003 and was shown at numerous film festivals. There were many attempts to obstruct its viewing such as at the last Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia where the film was withdrawn. The production was awarded Best Short Film by the Arab World Institute in Paris, 2005.
The Syrian authorities have always followed closely the film and the success of its director who is well-known for his opposition to the Syrian government. However, Syrian authorities only decided on 19 September 2006 to arrest Amiralay, prohibit him from leaving Syria and interrogate him for thirteen hours. This action came after Al Arabiya aired the documentary less than two weeks ago. Therefore, his arrest came only after the film was made available to Arab viewers in general and Syrians in particular.
Disregarding the circumstances and factors associated to the film, its broadcast by Al Arabiya was the cause of Amiralay’s arrest and restriction on travel. According to Amiralay, the Syrian investigator asked about the content of the film in the same way that the film portrays. Amiralay said, “They wanted to know about the purpose and significance of the film.” As if this was not evident in the documentary itself!
Amiralay loosened the reins on the film and the characters by interfering as little as possible and it is evident that this is what provoked the suspicion of Syrian censorship. Restriction is exactly what the production ‘A Flood in Baath Country’ looks at and accordingly the context of the film seemed normal and unlikely to be condemned by observers.
What is left is that is that it is likely that the film will be shown on television as it is a form of public media and that political sensitivity will become more dominant than the questions that the director raised in his film, knowing that the Syrian investigator was aware that the documentary was produced before the crisis, which Syria is currently experiencing, began. Perhaps this ordeal that the Syrian director and producer is facing as well as Syrian literates and oppositionists is the natural ending that we should expect to see as we watch films like ‘Flood in Baath Country.’