Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Palestinian Cause in Syrian Cinema

Palestinian Cause Syrian Cinema
Syrian director Najdat Anzur (foreground-R) looks at the cast and crew of his new film “The Living Martyr” as they prepare for a scene at the Beaufort Castle in the southern Lebanese village of Arnun on February 9, 2009. The film, directed by Anzur, revolves around the operations conducted by the Lebanese Hezbollah militants against the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon. AFP PHOTO/STR

Nabil Mohamed

Introduction

The presence of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian Cause in Syrian cultural products is – in terms of quantity, not necessarily quality – unrivalled in the Arab world. One might say that Syria’s production of film, television and music related to the Palestinian Cause far exceeds other Arab countries. This is primarily due to the Palestinian Cause’s presence in Syrian political or cultural discourse. Moreover, successive regimes in Syria have manipulated the Palestinian Cause to serve their interests. In particular, the Baath Party, which has ruled the country for over 50 years.

The Palestinian presence in Syrian works, whether produced by the public or private sector, acknowledged the Palestinian Cause as part of Syrians’ lives. This Syrian sense of ownership allowed the issue to be present in all media. The works have not necessarily been dedicated to discussing a Palestinian story that emerged from the conflict but could also include a social or romantic story not organically linked to politics.

Palestine in Early Cinema

Unfortunately, early Syrian cinema lacks a comprehensive archive. The available films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s are only a small fraction of what was produced. The only way to uncover the films produced in this era is through printed archives, i.e. the books dedicated to archiving and reviewing cinema.

Before the establishment of the National Film Organization (NFO) in 1963, the private sector dominated Syrian film production. Cinema was strictly commercial and aimed primarily at the box office. Nonetheless, the Palestinian Cause was present. Critics did not consider this presence tasteful as it became inseparable from cinema, mainly since the films were not concerned with intellectual and objective values.

The first Syrian film that mentioned the Palestinian Cause was 1937’s Nedaa al-Wajeb[1], directed by Ayoub al-Badri, who also directed the first film in the history of Syrian cinema – 1928’s al-Muttaham al-Baree.  According to historical references, the film dealt with the Arab Revolt in Palestine against the British occupation. It was produced by Harmon Film, the first cinema collective in Syria, created by a group of amateurs who went on to become professionals.

Syrian and Arab references seldom mention the 1940s and 1950s films that discuss the Palestinian Cause. A rare example is the 1949 al-Jaysh al-Souri fel Maydan. This film, produced by Ahmed Irfan, talks about the Syrian army’s role in the 1948 war.

The scarcity was not limited to films about Palestine; the industry was not very prolific and purely commercial. Many films were shelved due to inflated budgets. Additionally, big production companies to finance such projects did not yet exist. The 1963 film called Waraa al-Hodoud[2], produced by Zoher al-Shawa, is a case in point. Although al-Shawa worked on this film, discussing the Palestinian Cause, for two years, he could not finish it.

In the 1960s, the NFO became a major production force. Private-sector production houses, particularly serious ones, were practically non-existent. In the 1960s, Syrian cinema produced several films about the Palestinian Cause, among which Thalath Amaliyat Dakhil Felasteen, produced in 1969 by Palestinian director Mohamed Saleh al-Kiali and starring Khaled Taja. In 1964, the same director made a documentary about the Palestine war called Qaedat al-Odwan. The 1969 Amaliyat al-Sa’aa al-Sadisa, directed by Seif el-Din Shawkat, stems from this same period.

The above films focused on the Palestinians’ personalities as fighters, attempting to present them mythically, as victorious heroes. This, in contrast with a reality devoid of any victory as defeats were consecutive. The films were described as commercial private sector works and were criticised upon release for being spoiled by the attention to form over content[3].

Public Sector Cinema

Palestinian Cause Syrian Cinema
Syrian director Nabil Maleh speaks during a joint press conference with US director Oliver Stone (not seen) at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) 17 December 2006. Maleh was honoured at the festival in recognition of his lifetime achievements. KAMAL MOGHRABI / AFP

The public sector took an interest in cinema production and later on subsidised it entirely. Naturally, the Palestinian Cause was featured more prominently as cinema no longer had a commercial goal. Therefore, all films produced by the NFO took a more serious approach, indifferent to box office successes. These films featured political and social issues compatible with the regime’s policies and, as such, were even marketed by the regime.

The NFO’s attention to essence marks the period in which the Palestinian Cause was starting to be presented in a realistic, authentic and profound way in Syrian cinema. The real breakthrough was a short film called Ikleel al-Shawk, directed by Nabil Maleh. The film was 20 minutes and discussed Palestinian refugees in diaspora camps following the 1967 Six-Day War. The film follows a Palestinian girl, portrayed by Fayza El-Shawish, from the Qaboun refugee camp in Damascus. Lived in poverty and oppression in the camp, she visits Damascus to marvel at the substantial differences between life in the camp and life in the city. Cities that she believes should be focused on the conflict with Israel. The film was a significant departure from the way the Palestinian Cause had usually served Syrian cinema.

The 1970’s trilogy Men in the Sun was inspired by a novel of the same name by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani. It came to be the most critical Syrian cinematic work discussing the Palestinian Cause. The trilogy consists of the three short films al-Makhadh by Nabil Maleh, al-Milad by Muhammad Shaheen, and al-Liqaa by Marwan Moazzen and covers the topic of martyrdom in Palestine.

Al-Liqaa tried to change the stereotypes regarding Palestinian fighters. The film depicts a Norwegian girl, played by Regine Albrecht, taken hostage by a Palestinian fighter, played by Khaled Taja. The girl becomes immersed in the reality of the Palestinian Cause and the fighters defending it, ultimately changing her perspective on the paradigm prevailing in Western media at the time.

Palestine continued to have a strong presence in Syrian cinema. Perhaps it was the most crucial issue that filmmakers of that period addressed and depicted in qualitative film productions. The same year Men in the Sun was produced, Iraqi director Kais al-Zoubaidi made al-Ziyarah, and his colleague Qasim Hawl made al-Yadd. These films also discussed the Palestinian Cause but opted for a more poetic and musical style, maintaining the imagery of the Palestinian tragedy.

A year later, director Khaled Hamadeh made al-Sikeen based on the novella All that’s Left to You by Ghassan Kanafani. The film was criticised for being incapable of presenting the famous novella adequately.

The Dupes

Palestinian Cause Syrian Cinema
Picture from the 1980s shows Egyptian film director Tawfiq Saleh who over a career of more than fourty years, made only seven feature films. Saleh, born in 1927, studied theatre in France and directed his first film, Darb al-Mahabil (Fool’s Alley), in 1954. At the end of the 60s, he moved to Syria where he produced his masterpiece, Al-Makhdu’oun (The Dupes), written by Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani about the tragedy of the Palestinian diaspora. AFP

Al-Makhduun or The Dupes, directed by Egyptian Tewfik Saleh, and produced by the NFO, was a milestone in the history of cinema depicting the Palestinian Cause. Many critics classify this film as the best Arabic film. It is based on the novel Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani. The director did not adopt the popular themes from that era, such as martyrdom and armed revolution, but took up the reality of powerlessness. It tells a story about three Palestinian men, portrayed by Abdul Rahman Al Rashi, Mohammad Khair Halawani, and Bassam Lotfy. After the 1948 war, in search of employment, they try to escape to Kuwait and, while waiting at customs at the Kuwaiti border, end up dead inside the smuggler’s car. The Palestinians’ bodies are disposed of like bags of trash on the roadside. According to the film, Palestinians were homeless and poor after the Nakba, dying in a narrow space with no room to breathe. The siege suppresses their screams for no one to hear.

The film won numerous awards, some of which, notably, at the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia in 1972. The film was awarded first prize by the International Catholic Centre in Belgium in 1973, and it received first prize at the Strasbourg Human Rights Film Festival 1973 in France. It also won the Lenin Peace Prize in Moscow in 1973.

“The Dupes” paved the way for a Syrian and Arab cinema that could look at the Palestinian Cause through eyes less riddled with bullets. It also discussed life in Palestinians’ homes, camps and work. However, films were still being produced where the central theme focussed on taking up arms and reclaiming the country.

After the 1973 War

After the Syrian army went to war with Israel on 6 October 1973, many cultural and artistic concepts in Syria changed. Cementing the concept of victory became the preoccupation of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. The reclamation of al-Qunaitra was presented as the war’s bright side in Syrian literature. It turned a blind eye to the losses on other fronts and the failure to regain the Golan Heights – the Syrian land Israel has been occupying until today.

After the war, the NFO was no longer the sole film producer in Syria. Other public sectors, such as Syrian TV and the Syrian Army’s Cinema Authority[4], produced films about the war, including al-Ikhtiraq by Ghannam Ghannam and al-Qunaitra 74 by Mohammad Malas.

The NFO produced a unique war film about the Palestinian Cause: Kafr Kasem, directed by the Lebanese Borhane Alaouie. This film, produced jointly with the Fondation Liban Cinema, was deemed a masterpiece in Arab cinema dealing with the Palestinian Cause. It discussed the Kafr Kasem massacre, carried out by Israeli border guards against over 50 Palestinian civilians. The film documented the era’s events using the tools of feature cinema. It won the Tanit d’Or at the Carthage Film Festival in 1974.

The defeat of June 1967 or the ‘Naksa’ echoed in several films produced by the NFO during the 1970s. The Naksa was either the film’s topic or played a role in the background, exemplified in 1975’s el-Etegah el-Moaakes by Marwan Haddad. This film identifies different coping mechanisms for dealing with defeat, from total defeat to persistence, steadfastness and attempted change. In comparison, the same theme appeared in the 1977 Red, White and Black by Bashir Safiya, which followed an internally displaced Palestinian. The mood of defeat manifested among all Syrians and Palestinians in the period between the Naksa and October 1973. In the same year, the NFO produced Heroes are Born Twice by Salah Dehny[5]. The film narrates the Arabs’ suffering under occupation after the Naksa, spreading a message of hope to new generations. A message conveyed through a child’s close relationship with his grandfather, who represents the past and memory.

The Palestinian Cause: Secondary Story in Film

Palestinian Cause Syrian Cinema
Lebanese actress Karmen Lobous poses with Syrian director Mohammed Malas as they arrive for the opening ceremony of Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) in Dubai on December 6, 2013. MARWAN NAAMANI / WAM / AFP

During the 1980s and 1990s, Syrian cinema did not deal directly with the Palestinian Cause. The Arab-Israeli conflict became more profound and artistic, as directors experimented with ways to employ political and national issues within film. As a result, many films were released, such as the 1981 Hadethet al-Nesf Metr by Samir Zekry. Palestine has a place in this film through the protagonist’s visit to a Palestinian refugee camp and the association of Syrian public life with the Palestinian Cause. This method, in which the Cause figures as a secondary story, appeared in other films by this period’s pioneers of Syrian cinema, including director Mohammad Malas. During the 1980s and 1990s, Malas presented Palestine differently in Ahlam al-Madina and al-Layl. The first, produced in 1984, is set in 1950’s Syria, when Palestine significantly influenced politics. However, the Palestinian Cause appears more distinctly in the 1992 al-Layl. We see a Syrian-Palestinian identification in this film when Syrian fighters go to defend Palestine and return broken after its occupation.

Like Mohammad Malas, most filmmakers of this period, such as Remon Boutros, Ghasan Shmit and Abdellatif Abdelhamid, featured the Palestinian Cause. Its influence on the story varied from one film to another. Films such as Layali Ibn Awi, Rassaelle Chafahyia, and Qumran and Zitona were tremendously popular in Syria. In his movie, Abdellatif Abdelhamid connected residents of coastal rural areas to the Palestinian Cause through radio and repeated insults to Israel, blaming it for most of their disappointments and setbacks.

Palestine in Today's Cinema

Palestinian Cause Syrian Cinema
Syrian director Basel al-Khatib speaks with Lebanese actors during the shooting of the series “Al-Ghaliboun” (The Victorious), financed by the Hezbollah owned Al-Manar TV and the Lebanese International Center, in the southern Lebanese village of Houmin on December 29, 2010. ANWAR AMRO / AFP

Film production in Syria has changed significantly after 2011. All efforts were directed toward producing propaganda films, primarily with military themes. These films support the Syrian regime and, most of the time directly, market its version of the truth. As a result, the Palestinian Cause is hardly present in cinema, and when it is, it is there to serve as a propaganda tool. In other words, the Cause was used to draw parallels between Syria and Palestine and present the same enemy, albeit with a different face.

In one of the films, Lakher al-Omr, produced in 2020 and directed by Basil al-Khatib, the character of an elderly Palestinian appears. The film attempts to create a state of identification between the two countries by portraying the opposition to the Syrian regime as a Salafi-jihadi terrorist and, simultaneously, a Zionist supported by the West. The director employed a similar dynamic with 2012’s Mariam in the early days of the movement in Syria. This film encapsulates the ways in which the Cause can be exploited culturally and artistically to serve cinema; the primary reason it was ever present at all in Syrian cinema and possibly the entire Arab world.

[1] Ibrahim. B., Palestine in the Arab Cinema, Syrian Ministry of Culture, The National Film Organization, Damascus, 2005.

[2] Alexan, J., Cinema in the Arab World, National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters, Kuwait, 1982.

[3] Ramzi K. et al, Pan-Arabism in the Arab Cinema,  Centre for Arab Unity Studies, Beirut, 1986.

[4]  Ibrahim, B., – A previous reference.

[5]  Alexan, J., – A previous reference.