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Banned in the Middle East

What does it take to get censored in Syria, anyway?

Because Syria does not have an authentic film industry of its own, the native movies collected for this inspired Walter Reade retro are (a) mostly crude third-world hardscrabble, or (b) often sourced out of the politics and/or funding of neighboring nations, or (c) both. Of course, the shadow of the Baathist regime, in place for 36 years and counting, looms—-but not in a dependably ideological way. However secular, the government's Byzantine, and often simply whimsical, web of censorship committees, gantlets, principles, and feuds has no official code to follow, and suppression is applied by secret censors when and if they see fit, a process that keeps all culture production in a state of anxious exhaustion.

There is no deciphering why some films are forbidden (and sometimes, years later, permitted), and why others are not; Oussama Mohammad's seemingly harmless Stars in Broad Daylight (1988) is still banned, although its tale of a doomed double wedding in a mountain village was apparently objectionable on the grounds that it depicted rural life in an interrogative way. Visually boisterous and tableau-busy, the film belies Mohammad's Moscow film school training, but it's medium potatoes beside his second film, Sacrifices (2003). An eye-magnet orgy of impossible perspectives, primal iconography, Living Theatre histrionics, inappropriate fondlings (no Sharia law here), and eggs eggs eggs, Mohammad's seething madness concerns itself with three interrelated families dug into the clay of a mountainside, awaiting a patriarch's death and living out every human impulse as if it were the brave cast's last will and testament. What does it take to get censored, anyway?

The nonfiction films on view are, unsurprisingly, more overtly political: Mohammad Malas's The Dream (1981) rather beautifully records Palestinian refugees recounting their dreams—most of which are matters of nationhood, desire, and hope. (An unknown percentage of the film's witnesses were later killed in the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila, led by the Israeli-directed Lebanese Christian forces.) Famed documentarian Omar Amiralay began as a pro-modernization advocate, with Film- Essay on the Euphrates Dam (1970); 33 years later, with A Flood in Baath Country (2003), he confronts his own naïveté and lets the Syrians displaced by the dam's misengineered boondoggle speak for themselves.

Seething madness: Sacrifices
photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center
Seething madness: Sacrifices

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The Road to Damascus: Discovering Syrian Cinema
May 5 through 18, Walter Reade

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In the meantime, Amiralay's Everyday Life in a Syrian Village (1974) and The Chickens(1977), both unblinking analyses of institutional poverty, are still cinema non grata in his homeland. It's hard to forecast the possible futures of Hala Mohammad's Journey Into Memory (2006), which consists entirely of a road trip to the Palmyra prison in an SUV with three middle- aged Syrian writers, who recount in poetic detail the many inexplicable years they spent there as convicts of culture.

 
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