Last week, London’s British Film Institute hosted the preview of “A Syrian Love Story” a documentary by Independent newspaper journalist Sean McAllister who, over a period of five years, followed the lives of Amer and Raghda in an attempt to humanise the Syrian conflict and make it accessible to every person regardless of educational background or political ideologies.
The documentary is a love story that began 15 years ago in a prison cell in Syria when Amer, a Palestinian refugee in Syria and an active member of the PLO, met Raghda, a Syrian Allawite who opposed the regime. He first saw her bloodied face after she was beaten and placed in a neighbouring cell and they started communicating through a tiny hole they had secretly made in the wall. They fell in love and got married upon their release and started a family together. But politics never allowed them to have a conventional married life; Raghda spent most of her time in prison while Amer was left to care for their four sons.
In 2009, while McAllister was enjoying a night out at a local bar he came across Amer who was on the phone talking about his imprisoned wife, up until that point McAllister was “living in the bubble” the Assad regime wanted journalists to be confined to; seeing and recording what the government approved. Upon their first encounter, Amer told McAllister: “[If] you want to report about the real Syria follow me I will show you the hidden reality that the world won’t get to see.” He introduced him to the Syrian people away from the glitz of the tourist quarters in old Damascus and it was there that McAllister’s documentary began.
McAllister began filming Amer a few months before the wave of revolutions hit the Arab world. At the time, Raghda was a political prisoner and Amer was left to care for their young children alone; Fadi, Shadi, Kaka and Bob have spent their whole lives watching either their father or mother go to prison for their political beliefs. During the filming, the family was constantly on the move as Raghda was well known to the police and her family were constantly being watched.
Bob, who was three years old when filming began, did not understand why his mother was not with them and why the only contact he had with her was by phone. Kaka, the middle child, who is quiet, considerate and mature, vows to follow his mother and father to prison for the price of freedom whereas Shadi – the eldest – seems to be indifferent to his surrounding, in love with a girl who is pro-Assad and against anyone who challenges him. Politics forced Shadi to break up with the girl he loves as she is engaged to be married to someone else; her fate is sealed at the end of the documentary.
This intimate family portrait helps viewers understand why people are literally dying for change in the Arab world. Once the revolution started, Amer saw it as a chance to free Raghda from prison and took part in the protests but had to change house and moved to the now infamous Yarmouk camp in Damascus.
International pressure forced the Syrian government to release political prisoners and Raghda is amongst them, however soon after, filmmaker Sean McAllister himself is arrested for filming and the political pressure around all activists intensifies. Amer and Raghda feel the heat more as McAllister’s footage is seized by the intelligence services.
Out of fear the family flee to Lebanon where cracks in Amer and Raghda’s relationship begin to surface and grow. Feeling torn and desperate to join the big change that is sweeping Syria, Raghda can no longer just stay and watch from afar and so she returns to Syria, leaving Amer and the children behind struggling to settle into their new life.
At the premier of the documentary, Amer informed the audience that the family had to rely on local Lebanese churches for food; being Palestinian he could not get a job and his children weren’t allowed into schools and when he applied to the UN for political asylum, he was told that without Raghda he had no chance; he is not Syrian after all.
After three months Raghda returned and finally they were approved by the UN and taken to France where they were given political asylum in the sleepy town of Albi, watching the revolution from afar waiting for Bashar Al-Assad to fall.
However, in the safety of France, the family began to fall apart. Raghda’s mental health suffered and she attempted suicide, Amer has an affair after he fails to regain the love that once existed in the prison cell. The love that thrived in the cells failed to reignite in the country renowned for l’amor. The war is now between husband and wife. In finding the freedom they fought so hard for, their relationship begins to fall apart.
At the end of the documentary, the once pro revolution Kaka questions the benefit of change in Syria, while eight-year-old Bob declares himself French and no longer remembers his previous life in Syria.
A Syrian Love Story is a documentary that McAllister regards as “the most special film I have made to date in my career.” One that he was not even sure would ever see the light of day as he wasn’t commissioned or supported to make the film until quite late in the process.
McAllister’s only objective was to allow people to understand the Syrian conflict without all the political jargon: “I wanted the average Hull factory worker to see the revolution without all the politics… just a simple story of ordinary human beings.”