The Syrian film-maker and activist Orwa Nyrabia (photo: Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images)
Missing: the Syrian Film-maker Orwa Nyrabia

The Hunt for Awkward Cultural Activists

Last Thursday afternoon, Orwa Nyrabia, film-maker, festival organiser and activist, disappeared as he was on the way to board a flight from Damascus to Cairo. It is assumed that he was arrested at Damascus airport by the Syrian security services. But, as Charlotte Bank reports, the case is not unique

Together with his wife, the artist and documentary film-maker Diana El-Jeiroudi, Orwa Nyrabia founded an independent production company, Proaction Films, in 2002. It was a new development in Syrian film production, which, until then, had been entirely in the hands of the state.

Proaction Films became an important element in the new independent film scene in Syria, inspired by the work of the film-maker Omar Amiralay, who died in 2011.

In 2008, Nyrabia and El-Jeiroudi founded Dox Box, an international festival for creative documentaries. Over the following years, the festival grew and became well-known well beyond the limits of the region. In recent years, workshops and other activities for upcoming Syrian film-makers played an increasingly important role and underscored the significance of the festival for the country's young film-making scene.

Protest against regime violence

Aside from working on his own projects, Nyrabia often served as a jury member in film festivals in Europe and the Middle East. As a result of his international contacts, he and his team were able to put the fifth Dox Box, which had been planned for March, on to the stage of a number of international film festivals. It was a protest against the continuing violence and government repression in Syria, as well as against the lack of action by the international community.

Instead of showing international documentary films in Syria as in the past, a selection of Syrian documentary films were shown at festivals throughout the world, in a Dox Box Global Day. According to a statement on the website, the aim was to show the world, "how poverty, oppression and isolation do not prevent humans from being spectacularly brave, stubborn and dignified".

Courage in hard times

In March, the European Documentary Network awarded its EDN Award to Diana El-Jeiroudi, Orwa Nyrabia and the Dox Box team. The prize usually rewards special services to the development of the European documentary film scene. But this year, the organisation, based in Denmark, justified its decision to award the prize to a non-European festival with its desire to honour "a group of courageous people with a great vision and outstanding will-power." It described them as "a team, who at hard times does not give up but fight the cruel violence of a heartless dictator by being innovative and showing great spirit."

Orwa Nyrabia is not the first Syrian artist and cultural activist to suffer at the hands of the regime. In August last year, the cartoonist Ali Ferzat was kidnapped by a gang of pro-government thugs and brutally beaten up. In May this year, the young film-maker, Bassel Shedaheh, was shot in Homs, where he was filming the protests and their suppression by the government.

The Syrian journalist Samar Yazbek (photo: photo: Manaf Azzam)
Samar Yazbek, the daughter of a prominent Alawite family, has chronicled the protests: for three months she actively followed the democracy movement in her country, until she had to emigrate to France


Targeted by the regime

Last year, the writer Samar Yazbek had to leave the country after she spoke out against the government and she began to fear for the safety of herself and her children. And the well-known film-maker Oussama Mohammad has also had to leave the country. These are only a few of the examples of the brutality with which the Syrian regime tries to silence its critics.

Orwa Nyrabia has been standing up for freedom and civil rights in his country ever since the protests began in early 2011. To do so, he used his international network of contacts, and now his friends, family and colleagues are trying to mobilise those contacts by using social networks on the Internet to call upon film-makers and artist to campaign for Nyrabia's release, as well as the release of the thousands of political prisoners currently held in Syria.

Charlotte Bank

© 2012

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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