Syrian films bring tears and smiles

Joseph Nasr  –
BERLIN –

One drops you, trapped and powerless, in the middle of a civil war, while the other uses humour to depict what’s it like to start a new life in Europe after escaping the same conflict.
“Insyriated” and “The Other Side of Hope” are two films about Syria, and they brought tears and smiles to the Berlin Film Festival.
Set entirely in a few rooms over the course of one day as skirmishes rage and ebb around them, Insyriated is designed as an intense ensemble piece in which the mother’s single-minded determination to ensure the safety of her charges is severely tested by outside forces.
Philippe Van Leeuw’s direction is more fluid than his dialogue, and there’s a crudeness to certain scenes that takes the viewer out of the horror exactly when we’re meant to feel it most. The sense of suffocation remains, however, and given the subject’s topicality, “Insyriated” will likely see scattered play, especially at human-rights showcases.
A concisely-told story that couldn’t be more timely in view of the traumas currently afflicting the Syrian people, Insyriated features a terrific lead performance by Hiam Abbass heading a multi-generational ensemble cast.
Playing the lady of the house, Hiam Abbass delivers an edge-of-seat performance, supported by a career-changing turn by Lebanese actress Diamand Bou Abboud as a young mother who undergoes a horrible ordeal.
By focusing on these two women, the film underlines the courage under fire of ordinary Syrians who find themselves caught in the midst of an all-out war while they sit in their living room. It’s harrowing just to watch this film, and the audience at its Berlin Panorama premiere trooped out mutely after the screening, too stunned to talk.
“It shocked people in a very smart way. Westerners saw enough images of destruction on their television screens. But few of them know what Syrians are going through or how they feel being trapped in there,” Iraqi film critic Kais Kasim said.
The film forces viewers to ask themselves how they would act in the same situation.
Belgian director Philippe Van Leeuw said the silence that followed the screening as well as seeing some of his actors and members of the audience in tears at the end made him think: “Mission accomplished.”
“It is hard for me to say I was happy when I saw the film for the first time with the audience,” said actress Hiam Abbass, who plays Oum Yazan.
“It brought people close to the Syrian people,” she said, adding that she had no idea the film would leave people speechless.
“The Other Side of Hope” by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki uses humour to depicts the experiences in Helsinki of stowaway Syrian asylum seeker Khaled, who decides to remain in the country illegally after his application is rejected.
“The Other Side of Hope,” the new Kaurismäki film that just premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, is set in Helsinki, a cosmopolitan city that, in this movie, at least, looks like a quaint, dinky, pre-tech-era throwback. People sit in offices in front of tiny manual typewriters, or they stub out cigarettes in kitchens that look like they belong in a Diane Arbus photograph.
A restaurant bar serves sardines — right out of the can! — and has a décor that consists of nothing more than bare walls, a few tables and chairs, and a painting of Jimi Hendrix. Is this what a dive in Helsinki really looks like? Or is it just another of Kaurismäki’s bare-bones movie sets? Maybe a bit of both. His fate is to meet the main character in the second story of the film, Finnish salesman Wikstrom, who buys a restaurant in the capital where he gives Khaled a job and a bed.
Wikstrom and the other Finns in the film are burlesque characters, the source of most of the light-hearted humour that almost obscures Khaled’s ordeal: most of his family died in a bomb in Aleppo and he lost his sister shortly after they arrived in Europe from Turkey.
“It uses comedy to convey tragedy,” said film critic Kasim. “It blends the critical with the caricature, leaving people with the question: do we laugh or do we cry?