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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Film as a Tool to Normalize War and Destitution in Syria

Film as a Tool
Actors are pictured in the Hajar al-Aswad neighbourhood of the Syrian capital Damascus on July 14, 2022, during the filming of a scene in a film titled “Home Operation.” LOUAI BESHARA / AFP

Dana Hourany

Introduction

Hajar al-Aswad, once a densely populated Damascus suburb that turned into an ISIS bastion from 2015 until 2018, has now become a location shoot for Jackie Chan’s new film “Home Operation.”

In partnership with the UAE‘s Art Makers Production house, the movie tells the story of China’s attempts to evacuate over 600 nationals and more than 200 foreigners during the early stage of the Yemeni civil war in 2015.

The film’s director and producer, Song Yinxi stated in a recent interview that the film aims to “strengthen film collaborations between the two countries” and to highlight “the humanitarian cooperation between UAE and China in a perilous situation.”

“Home operation” is Yinxi’s first production set in the Arab world; filming will take place in the UAE and Lebanon. However, Yinxi made no mention of Syria in his interview.

When asked on the most important elements of a shoot, Yinxi answered digitalstudiome that apart from the actors’ performance, “there is the authenticity and artistry of the scene, which restores and sublimates the culture of a country or place.”

Since Yemen was deemed too hazardous to film in, the crew traveled to what remains of Hajar al-Aswad. According to reports, actors dressed in the Yemeni tribal garb as sounds from the action picture echoed across the abandoned town that was once home to thousands of people.

This sparked outrage among Syrians who have been forcibly displaced from Hajar al-Aswad, and who throughout recent years have had to witness the normalization of ties with the Assad regime despite the documentation of numerous war crimes.

"The black stone" turned grey

Named “the black stone” in Arabic, Hajar al-Aswad had a population of 370,000 thousand people prior to 2012. Neighboring the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk which housed 500,000 people, Hajar al-Aswad was one of the poorest and most marginalized areas of Damascus.

The neighborhood’s residents had been previously displaced from the Golan and survived in low-income households. In 2011, the capital’s southern parts became major hosts of anti-regime movements.

By the end of 2012, extremist factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaysh al-Islam were among the first to occupy the area before it fell into the hands of ISIS from 2015 until 2018.

The Syrian regime and its allies responded by mounting a violent military campaign to recover control of Hajar al-Aswad, resulting in the full devastation of massive portions of the town and the destruction of 80% of its infrastructure.

A deserted area with gutted buildings and sprawls of grey rubble, the town remains uninhabitable. Rehabilitating the infrastructure is still in its initial stages and rubble blocks movement in most streets.

But for an action film sparing the exorbitant costs of building an indoor war-zone set, the move makes financial sense. For Syrian nationals, on the other hand, the choice is an appalling and insensitive one.

“We [Syrians] used to film there,” Inas Hakki, a displaced Syrian director currently residing in France told Fanack. “People used to welcome us into their homes to tell us what messages they wanted us to relay through the productions. Now their homes have been turned into low-cost studios.”

Exploitation by the Axis

Productions from Iran and Russia have also been shot in Syria. The 2021 Russian movie “Sky,” based on the shoot down of the Russian Air Force Su-24 in 2015, is said to contain real-life scenes filmed on the ground. Another 2021 film, “Palmyra,” tells the story of a doctor whose daughter is persuaded by a terrorist group to move to Syria. The father then ventures on a journey to save her. The film was largely filmed in Syria.

Iran caused controversy when it first screened its 2018 film on the country’s presence in Syria, “Damascus Time.” Set between Iran and Damascus, the storyline highlights the confrontation between Iranian fighters and the Islamic State in Syria.

While Russia’s and Iran’s narratives aim to glorify their intervention in Syria, the Syrian regime is bolstering the narrative of successfully fending off the “terrorists” that sparked the 2011 uprising, spiraling the country into a state of war, Hakki said.

“The revolution called for freedom and dignity but it received brutal oppression as a response. Now the regime and its allies want to propagate the narrative of conquering terrorism, hijacking our truth entirely,” the director added.

“Life has returned to normal and Syria is open to visitors. That’s the image the regime is trying to sell. Although this could be beneficial to the regime’s pockets, the primary reason in my opinion is propaganda.”

Asharq al-Aswat reported that locals from Hajar al-Aswad were barred by the crew from “inspecting their homes destroyed by war because filming is underway.”

Foreigners could move freely but locals were told to keep a distance.

“I’m a Damascene and I’ve lived and covered the siege,” Mouneb Taim, a Syrian journalist told Fanack. “So I consider that the production team and the director, in particular, are merely dancing over a crime scene as if the destruction were a place of performance.”

A home, not a film-set

Taim, who has also extensively covered this issue, says the displaced residents of Hajar al-Aswad wish China would reconstruct their homes once production concludes.

As for the ones who still reside in nearby areas and who oppose the shoot, they were prohibited from voicing their concerns in light of the Syrian government’s approval of the project.

“For the displaced this is like having salt rubbed on an open wound. For me personally, having witnessed the complete destruction of my life in Damascus, it feels like they’re compounding the pain by turning our neighborhoods into mere theatres,” Taim said.

For Hakki, who has worked in Syrian drama and has filmed in almost all Syrian governorates, the transformation of a sector she and her father, renowned Syrian director Haitham Hakki, contributed to immensely, is heart-shattering.

“It is our duty as directors, producers, and actors living abroad to keep fighting the regime’s propaganda by producing films from our own perspective. However, this comes with many challenges,” she said.

A key obstacle, the director notes, is finding the right setting.

“If I were to tell the story of Syrians inside Syria, how can I do it while living in France? Everything looks different from inside Syria,” she added.

Aleppo, a Story of Rubble and Normalization

Although many documentaries such as “For Sama” and the “Last Men in Aleppo” gained international recognition for their real-time recounts of the horrors of the war, Hakki says that the process of producing films on Syria is a taxing challenge for a freshly traumatized population.

“We’re seeing more independent films coming out lately telling our people’s stories,” Hakki said. “However, all of us working in production are still traumatized and are trying our best to adapt. We need time to heal to be able to confront the harsh reality of what happened.”

On Friday July 9, Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad visited Aleppo for the first time since the war broke out in 2011. He participated in the Eid al-Fitr prayers and his family was photographed strolling down a destroyed neighborhood.

“This visit was very upsetting for the Allepians I spoke to. They said it was like observing a murderer that kills on one day and then walks at the funeral procession the day after,” Taim said.

“Despite its efforts, the regime won’t be able to reconstruct its image because the war is still ongoing, and every now and then new evidence of its crimes emerges,” the journalist added.