The total destruction and horror of Syria is so huge, so ever-increasingly terrible that we can’t always really comprehend it. We’ve known for years, of course – we’ve heard the reports, we’ve seen the images of terrible carnage and insufferable terror rained upon the Syrian people, the lines of tortured bodies, the agony of dead children and the shells of shattered homes.
We’ve seen the pure hell that clings to the thousands of people fleeing this swirl of death, taking whatever nightmarish, and all too often fatal, routes of escape are open to them. We’ve seen this modern day horror in so many grotesque and ravaging ways, and we’ve seen that there is no end to the permutations of pain that this conflict continues to inflict upon so many people.
And yet now, A Syrian Love Story, a new documentary that was filmed over five years, manages to capture a deeper level, a microcosm that tells a greater story, shown through a personal, often painfully high-resolution portrayal of just one family, falling apart.
It’s almost accidental, the way this film catches so much of the endlessly reproducing pain of war. Documentary film-maker Sean McAlister started filming a Syrian activist couple, Raghda and Amer, before the revolution that began in 2011, because he was interested in political prisoners.
The couple fell in love behind bars, bore children and then Raghda was incarcerated again, leaving Amer and their sons to cope with her excruciating absence.
Torn apart, broken
She was released during the protests of 2011, but then McAlister was captured by Syrian security forces. His footage of the couple was seized and so the family, critical of the regime, was forced to flee – to Lebanon until they were granted asylum in France.
Physically, they are safe – but in every other sense they are torn apart, broken, a family that strains to stay together and can barely articulate the reasons behind that, because the trauma runs too deep.
For people so politically committed to Syria, being severed from it is unbearable – and since the couple’s relationship was built on the foundation of these shared politics, that, too, becomes impossibly compromised.
In one scene, Amer tells McAlister, the film-maker – who is at various points drawn into the family’s world, his advice sought, his perspective valued – that Raghda needs to stop being Che Guevara and start being a mother. He tells her something similar later on and the anguish of this statement is clear – the thing Amer loved about Raghda becoming the thing he resents her for.
This film should finally shatter the cold assumption that migrants come to Europe to take what we have – the clear reality is that, given a sane choice, most would rather be home; and who wouldn’t?
If it does just one thing, this film should finally shatter the cold assumption that migrants come to Europe to take what we have – the clear reality is that, given a sane choice, most would rather be home; and who wouldn’t? That deep desire suffuses the screen, in the gaze over old photographs of Syria, in the restless heaviness of an unshakable inertia, in the eyes that light up, fleetingly, only when they recall home.
‘Our sweet days’
It’s heartbreakingly captured in a scene where the youngest child, Bob (who was three when filming started), is sitting with his parents in Lebanon, looking at old films and family snapshots and says that he misses “our sweet days”. How do you comfort a small child who wants to go home, who is already full of an impossible yearning for a country that no longer exists?
“Don’t cry,” his mother tells him between hugs. “We will return when Bashar falls.”
Severed from their real lives, this Syrian family can only hope that the children will find a way to forget, to build new futures in France. Amer asks film-maker McAlister if he thinks Bob could ever be French, assimilated, functional, despite what he has been forced to see and flee. McAlister is reassuring: “Of course. Because he is young.”
It’s a lovely idea, but the film’s texture is heavy with the possibility that things might not work out, that there may be no happy ending.
A Syrian Love Story is bound up with the fate of just one family – but it could be any Syrian family, any day. And as the days blur into years, we routinely debate what to do about Syria, argue about refugee intake quotas, barricade borders, negotiate and then renegotiate which global powers to bring into the search for a solution, and how.
But all that time, straining against the surface of the speculation over strategies, is a never-ending deluge of grief, anguish and trauma – and where is all of that devastating pain going to go?
How do you mend hearts that have been broken into a million tiny pieces, the jagged shards of which continue to pierce and wound a million fragile lives?
Slowly and agonisingly, frame by frame, piece by piece, A Syrian Love Story shows us that we haven’t even started to deal with this. We haven’t begun to comprehend. We haven’t really thought about it at all.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.