Damascus, Asharq Al-Awsat- Marking the occasion of the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (ISESCO) selection of Damascus as 2008’s Islamic cultural capital, preparations are underway to produce ten films that feature Syria’s First City – four of which will be feature films while the other six will include documentaries and shorts. Selecting Damascus as the starting point for the productions might seem to be the matter of importance, but what is more important is the role, or the lack thereof, of the National Film Organization, which produces approximately three films every two years, a number that does not befit the institution’s size nor the number of employees who work there. The organization’s meager production is considerably low and comes nowhere near matching its aspirations, or the number of full-time employed directors some of whom take long years off without producing any work. It is worth noting that the former Damascus Film Festival has now been chalked to become an annual and international festival after last year’s 14th edition, which screened 500 films from different countries within a week, and prompted some to describe the event as a miracle worthy of the Guinness book of records. The National Film Organization also publishes the art book series ‘The Seventh Art’ which exceeds 112 books to the present day and tackles issues related to both Arab and international cinema and their history, in addition to publishing ‘al-Hiah al-Cinemai’a’ (Cinematic Life), a quarterly magazine.
Walking into the National Film Organization’s building in Damascus, a building that is teeming with staff and a large number of directors and photographers (of the generation that graduated under socialist regimes) gives you the sense that you just stepped into a hospital for chronic diseases. But the irony here is that the organization’s administration still insists on holding onto the hope of restoring its ailing film industry a time when the whole Arab world suffers from the same malaise. This institution, which is affiliated to the Syrian Ministry of Culture, is presently the only body that finances film production in the country – this is if we were to exclude small productions directed by young filmmakers with low budgets, sometimes at their own expense, or with external funding or aid. Lately, several films like these have appeared and they’ve received both attention and support – when they’ve been allowed to screen.
This year, the organization released two films; ‘al-Haweya’ (Identity), directed by Ghassan Shamit and screenplay by Wafiq Youssef, and ‘Kharig Nitaq al-Taghteya’ (Out of the Coverage Area), directed by Abdellatif Abdelhamid who also directed ‘Layali Ibn Awa’ (The Nights of the Jackal – 1989), ‘Rasa’il Shafahiya’ (Verbal Messages – 1991), ‘So’ud al-Matar’ (The Ascent of Rain -1995), ‘Nesim al-Roh’ (The Breeze of the Soul – 1998), and most recently, ‘Ikhtiyar al-Same’een’ (The Listeners’ Choice – 2003). Abdelhamid, who also writes the screenplays for his films, has received numerous awards and his films are always packed with eager audiences to the point where the saying that cinema audiences have decreased over the years falls on deaf ears when it comes his screenings. One of Syria’s most active directors, it would seem that he is granted more opportunities than the rest of the Syrian directors, perhaps by virtue of the prizes he won. It’s quite noticeable that the National Film Organization prioritizes award winners and considers prizes to be an indicator of success. But Syrian cinema, although characterized as a progressive one that tackles social and political issues, still cannot be compared to the Egyptian film industry. To the present day, despite the changing times, Syrian cinema is still monitored and controlled by a 13-member intellectual committee that receives screenplays to read and access in advance. Provoking the anger of many in the field, their main objection being that some of the committee members have no background or knowledge of cinema. Many have mocked and expressed their outrage and consider it demeaning to people in the industry.
Journalist Mansour al-Deeb, a cinema enthusiast who works at the National Film Organization, believes what is truly required is a radical change in the way the institution produces its films. He says, “The method currently employed, which relies on presenting the script to the intellectual committee for feedback, is a method that impedes rather than facilitates the production of any given film. At this particular stage, if we can develop the committee’s work, we can then begin to develop the film production process in a substantial manner.” He also says, “None of those working in the field want to put an end to the National Film Organization’s role.” According to al-Deeb, this institution is one of a kind in the Arab world where the state undertakes film production from its inception to its completion. However, he believes everyone wants this institution to evolve to be able to absorb new capacities. Part of the organization’s upcoming plan over the next two years is the production of feature films, some of which are based on novels by Syrian writers, which are set in Damascus and its old districts. Currently shooting is ‘Haseeba’, which is based on a novel by the same name by writer Khairi al-Dhahabi’s, and it’s directed by Raymond Boutros. The film follows the story of several women from Damascus during the period between 1927 and 1950, while revealing the social, political and economic changes that were taking place. The story focuses on the spatial and urban dimension of the city as emphasized by al-Dhahabi’s novel. The large all-Syrian cast, includes Solaf Vokhraji, Jiana Eid, Talhat Hamdi, Salim Sabri, Saleh al-Hayek, Maya Nebwani and Mohamed Haddak in the main roles, and director of photography, George Lutfi al-Khoury, who employs the latest digital film-making techniques. The second novel to be adapted is Fawaz Hadda’s ‘Mosaic’, where the events take place in Damascus during the period between the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of the French colonialism in the 1920s and the effect it had on the native families. Two more features are expected to be produced but have yet to be named.
It is widely believed by film specialists that the return to the narrative form in feature films can be attributed to film critic, and the organization’s general-director, Mohammed al-Ahmed’s personal leanings. They believe that it is a product of long years of the domination of the so-called, “author’s cinema” in the Syrian film industry and that it is responsible in shaping part of his cinematic vision. But moreover, it also reflects the belief that the novel’s universe offers audiences a wider and richer horizon that what is believed to be the more limited vision of the director and screenplay writer. One of the involved people commented that there is a trend to return back to narrative films that are based on novels such as the Egyptian ‘Omarit Yacoubian’ (The Yacoubian Building) and the American ‘The Da Vinci Code’. As to the recent use of digital photography in Syrian cinematography, Mansour al-Deeb believes that after the success of director Ayham al-Deeb’s short film, ‘Saqeefa Al A’raf’ (The Fortuneteller’s Corner), which was produced in 2005 and has a running time of 12 minutes, that it is but the beginning of the long-awaited Syrian cinematic renaissance.