Syrian Cinema

Thumbing Its Nose at the Censor

Politically explosive films and television series from Syria are storming the Arab market. Now the film "The Long Night" – the first Syrian feature film to highlight the fate of political prisoners – has become ensnared in the censorship process. It is nevertheless reaching its audience via satellite television – even in Syria. Susanne Schanda reports

​​ Four men in blue prison gear with unkempt grey hair and stubble sit in their cell drinking tea. The light is crepuscular, the plaster is peeling off the walls. They have been behind bars for 20 years for criticising the regime. Karim is the oldest, he stays lying down on his metal bed and has his tea brought to him. He is resigned to his fate. Then the heavy iron door swings open, and out of all the men it is Karim who is ordered to pack his things and go with the guards. He is being released.

The opening scenes of "The Long Night" are almost wordless, and there is no music to break the silence. We watch as Karim washes himself, as the guards shave him and cut his hair. Then suddenly he's out on the street, in a shirt and suit, a leather bag in his hand – he sniffs the air, and takes in his surroundings with amazement.

The film by Haitham Hakki, one of Syria's best-known filmmakers, does not focus on prison conditions or the arbitrary nature of detentions. It deals instead with members of the released prisoner's family, who have come to an arrangement with the regime and made their compromises. The unexpected release of Karim throws their lives into confusion, and triggers recriminations and feelings of remorse.

"I am concerned with the human drama, the film does not operate with political slogans," says Haitham Hakki in an interview with Qantara.de in Damascus. He wrote the screenplay himself. Once this was approved by the censors, the film could be made in Syria with Syrian actors, under the supervision of star director Hatem Ali.

But the film required further authorisation before it could go on general release in Syrian cinemas. "The censors were full of praise for the film, but because of the sensitive political subject they passed it on to a higher authority for consideration. That was about six months ago. I've heard nothing since," says the author.

photo: Susanne Schanda
"The censors can't shut down the universe": Syrian scriptwriter and filmmaker Haitham Hakki

​​ Nevertheless, in an era of globalised satellite television, the long arm of the censor is actually not that long at all: "It's only a matter of time before Syrian audiences will also be able to see the film," says Haitham Hakki, who produced the film for the Saudi production company Orbit. "Orbit will soon be broadcasting the film on a cable broadcaster. Then we'll sell it on to other television stations, and it'll soon be broadcast everywhere, even in Syria. The censors can't shut down the universe." "The Long Night" has already been shown at numerous film festivals and honoured with prizes, for example in Cairo, Delhi and Taormina.

Close to the taboo zones

Haitham Hakki is a decidedly political filmmaker. Has he ever been sent to prison for his views? He waves his hand in negation: "No, but I know many families who have suffered similar tragedies." He is unimpressed by films that propagate a direct political message, and says that in any case, it would not be possible to make such a film in Syria.

Some Arab critics have accused him of taking a clear-cut stance against the government in "The Long Night". Hakki, who describes himself as a social democrat, says: "That doesn't interest me. My social dramas are always political, even if they're not explicitly about politics. If you want to instigate change, you draw back the veil on society's failings. That is political in itself."

Ten years ago, the censorship process in Syria was considerably more stringent than it is today. When the new government of Bashar al-Assad came to power following the death of his father Hafez al-Assad in the year 2000, the change ushered in a period of liberalisation. But what became known as the Damascus Spring was short-lived. Artists, writers and filmmakers have now learned how to circumvent censorship and express criticism without calling a spade a spade.

​​ Haitham Hakki explains that there are red lines that are not to be crossed, but it's not always clear where they have been drawn. Sometimes a decision can depend on the mood or the character of the official responsible at the time. Generally in the Arab world, the three main taboos apply: sex, religion and politics. "But it's not possible to make any film without at least touching upon these issues," says Hakki. "I always manoeuvre in very close proximity to these taboo zones and continually try and broaden their acceptance."

New stimuli from the Syrian film and television industry

Just like Egypt, Syria also has its fair share of cheap and cheerful soap operas, but the nation also has a proud tradition of television series that weave more challenging subjects into their storylines such as social problems and modern Syrian history; or Arab issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the situation in Iraq – an approach that is popular with audiences.

Since 1980, the 61-year-old director, scriptwriter and producer Haitham Hakki has made numerous political and socially explosive feature films and television series. He has often had to wait years for permission to screen them. For example, for the 23-part series "Khan al-Harir" ("Silk Market") by the writer Nihad Siris, directed by Hakki. The censorship authorities withheld the screenplay for two years, until permission to go ahead with filming eventually came in 1996.

The story of love and trade in the souq of Aleppo highlights the negative impact of the Syrian-Egyptian union of 1958-61. "The government didn't like that," Hakki suspects. "But in the end, authorities even allowed the series to go out during the most advantageous period for broadcasts – the fasting month of Ramadan. It was a huge success and was later shown again several times."

After "Khan al-Harir" came increasing numbers of Syrian television series and films that were huge hits beyond national borders across the Arab world. This success posed a threat to the Egyptian film industry, which had dominated the market up to that point. "We brought a cinematographic perspective to the series, filmed with just one camera at locations outside the studio, and chose brazen subjects," Hakki explains the strategy. Previously, television series production had been restricted to the studio. "It looked like filmed theatre and bored people," he says.

Financial boost from liberal Arab satellite broadcasters

Apart from the inspiration and courage of Syrian filmmakers, the emergence of satellite broadcasters in the Gulf States from the mid-1990s also played a key role in enhancing the popularity of Syrian series. It meant more money had now come into play.

photo: Susanne Schanda
Increasing numbers of Syrian television series and films are huge hits beyond national borders across the Arab world. Pictured: star director Hatem Ali

​​ MBC, Rotana and Orbit are the best-known Arab media concerns investing robustly in feature films and series. "Previously, when there were only local broadcasters in each individual country, we had to sell each series to around 20 foreign broadcasters to recoup the money we'd invested. Now the lion's share of the financing comes from the media concerns in the Gulf, which are owned by Saudi princes or businesspeople," says Hakki.

As for what influence or even censorship is exerted on the part of the investors, this is extremely small. Hakki concedes that there were initially some problems with the Kingdom's strict moral codes, but now that most of the broadcasters have relocated abroad, companies run by Saudis are the most liberal in the Arab world. "Those who invest large amounts of money want to see profit, and ideological questions are of secondary importance," he says soberly.

So, the fact that the censor's knife no longer reaches the controversial objects of desire looks to be less a case of political intention, and more a side effect of competition between satellite broadcasters in a realm where the sky's the limit. "'The Long Night' is the best example of that," confirms Haitham Hakki.

Susanne Schanda

© Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Edited by: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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