Berlin, Germany – Every February, directors flock to the Berlin International Film Festival.
This year, 29-year-old Syrian director Avo Kaprealian was among them. His first feature film, Houses Without Doors, was featured at the Forum section of the festival.
In it, he tackles the civil war in his country and the resulting refugee crisis from his home town of Aleppo.
Over a period of several years, he filmed daily life in his Armenian neighbourhood from the balcony of his childhood home.
“Especially living in a regime [controlled] area, it was so hard to make a film there. I had the feeling of fear – even from the balcony,” he says.
“This is your neighbourhood and these are people you know. You are filming someone who may die tomorrow. Maybe you will die as well. It was so strange.”
Snippets of conversations with his mother punctuate the film, as she recounts their own family’s experience fleeing Turkey during the mass killings of Armenians during the early 20th century. Growing up as a Syrian-Armenian, Kaprealian feels that he has a deep understanding of what it means to be a refugee.
“My film talks about the meaning of being a refugee. I did some parallels between the two stories of Syria and Armenia – what’s happening now and what happened in the past, because everything is linked together for me.”
Telling ‘human stories’
Kaprealian continued to film as the conflict worsened – attempting to bear witness to the destruction of his district while taking a snapshot of how life had once been.
“It was so hard because you are living it. You are capturing something you want to keep alive as a memory in a special part of Aleppo and Syria,” he reflects.
Kaprealian has come under scrutiny from the government of Bashar al-Assad, and was detained by the security services in 2012.
But the director, who now lives in exile in the Lebanese capital Beirut, remains undeterred.
“[Government pressure] pushes you to say things in a more clever way, if I can say that,” Kaprealian explains. “You can take the memory card, but you can’t take my memory and my eyes. I see what’s happening, so I can say this even without a camera.”
Ultimately, Kaprealian is hopeful that the disaster that has beset his country will usher in a blossoming of Syrian cinema.
“I think catastrophe generally creates art in history. I think Syrian cinema is going to be very beautiful on many levels because we are all suffering and working through [our] shock.”
He also believes that coming of age professionally during the conflict has affected how young Syrian directors and artists are creative.
“Young Syrian artists all want life in front of the death that continuously happens,” he explains. “They are in an abstract place beyond the good and evil parallels. They are returning to a sense of humanity.”
It is his passion for living that keeps him going, he says.
“I love life …. I wanted to see life in the dead and in the war. I wanted to see that life must go on in a different way.”
And it is his love for cinema that keeps him filming.
“I love cinema,” he says. “I have so many human stories to tell.”
‘The eternity of cinema’
When director Talal Derki arrived in Berlin in the summer of 2013, few Syrian filmmakers had made the move to the German capital. But just a year later, the city had become a hub for the Syrian film industry.
“In 2014, a lot of Syrian filmmakers started to come to Germany,” Derki says. “They came to Berlin because it has a long history since the Berlin Wall of being a refuge for artists and people with political problems.”
The 38-year-old from Damascus brought his wife and son to Germany to protect them from the growing dangers of life in Syria. But he continues to shoot his films in Syria, travelling back and forth every four months.
He believes that documentary filmmaking is an underdeveloped genre in Syrian cinema, given the intense government scrutiny of media projects. While that pressure forced some directors to leave for Paris before the war, Derki says the dangerous nature of shooting a documentary in sensitive places has caused other filmmakers to think twice about working in Syria.
“It’s dangerous, for sure – if the regime knows about you. You can also get killed if you are in sensitive places,” Derki says. “We don’t have that tradition of working before [the war] with documentary film.”
As a documentary filmmaker, Derki uses realism to convey the realities of the conflict. His goal is for both the protagonist and the audience to forget that the camera stands between them.
“My films show the real face of the war and how it looks in spontaneous and natural real life, like there is no camera,” he says.
His most recent release is the documentary Return to Homs, a story about Abdul Baset al-Saroot, the former national goalkeeper turned rebel leader. Derki followed Saroot for two years as the conflict in Homs grew deadlier. The audience witnesses the protagonist’s shift from peaceful protester to armed fighter.
“He is a clear example of the waves that take our people. In a way, I help you understand how his life was and what exactly happened to him emotionally and psychologically that [led to] his breakdown. Personal stories can make any subject closer to [the audience] so they can understand it in a different way,” Derki says.
As an expression of culture, cinema is a powerful tool to communicate a society’s values and identity. When asked about the importance of filmmaking in preserving a culture threatened by war, Derki admits that it is a difficult task.
“In general, conflict is too complicated and you’re not able to change ideas. You are just trying to put a spotlight on some point so it can exist for eternity,” he explains.
“If someone comes 20 years from now and wants to see what the war in Syria was like, then he can understand it like the moment it happened. This is the eternity of the cinema.”
Derki believes that the mass displacement of Syrian filmmakers will be useful for their creativity, but he doubts that the exiled artists will ever return to their homeland.
“It’s a new experience that absolutely impacts your work without you realising it because you live with it day by day,” he reflects.
Syria: the source of inspiration
Nidal Hasan is another Syrian director who has sought refuge in Berlin. The 42-year-old Tartus native studied filmmaking in Armenia on a government scholarship and spent the early part of his career working for the National Film Organisation (NFO), the Syrian government’s official ministry for film.
“When I came back [from Armenia], I gave the [NFO] a script for a short film and they said they liked it,” he remembers. “For a young filmmaker, it was a good opportunity.”
But Hasan’s desire to express his real opinions in his work eventually brought him head to head with the NFO’s director. On several occasions, he was asked to change his script or to use particular actors, he recalls.
“You’re not 100 percent free,” he explains. “Since you use the money of NFO, they want you to use their ideology.”
In 2009, the government commissioned seven directors for a project on Syrian cinema. Hasan was among them. But when some of the others were stopped from making their films, Hasan protested by refusing to go ahead with his.
“I also tried to protect my friends. They told me, ‘Just make your film and don’t think about the others’,” he says. “But we are all filmmakers, so we must be one collective.”
After cutting all ties with the NFO in late 2009, Hasan felt despondent.
“I’m not interested in just being a filmmaker,” he says. “I like working in art through pictures to understand myself, people and life.”
Themes surrounding the civil war, refugees and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) dominate recent narratives in Syrian cinema, as local and international companies channel large budgets into such projects.
But Hasan longs for a shift towards more human stories, and is optimistic that this change will be ushered in by a younger generation of directors.
“I hope in the coming years we will see more films involved with human stories instead of the conflict. People are tired and don’t want to see conflict all the time, but [they do want to see] life. Even the simplest details: listening to Fairuz, drinking coffee, and the ritual of all of this.”
He believes Syrian directors lie at the heart of Syrian cinema.
“Syrian cinema is dependent on Syrian filmmakers. In the future, it will be different and we will see different voices in the visual world. It’s great.”
The exiled Syrian filmmakers are finding inspiration in their new homes as well as those they left behind, he says.
“Everything is changing in Syria and cinema is part of that,” Hasan reflects. “I think that [directors] are freer to tell their stories but you also lose the sources of your stories: Syria.”