Footage openly criticizing Assad, from A Syrian Love Story (Sean McAllister, 2015)
Trigger Warning: this is a rant. I had not meant for my first blog post to reveal my more lacerating tendencies, but there you go. The screening of a much-lauded film in England about Syria that I felt compelled, or rather practically propelled, to see, prompted this admittedly provocative response. And for the record, I am about as fond of trigger warnings, as I am of the film about to be discussed.
Two things tempered my experience of watching A Syrian Love Story (Sean McAllister, 2015), both related to the filmmaker’s presence at the Bertha DocHouse screening I attended in London. The first was by way of introduction. The filmmaker wanted to thank his producer for all the work she had done on the project, having forgotten to do so in the initial screening of the film at the cinema that week. He self deprecatingly acknowledged that he was so busy pandering to the members of the audience affiliated with the BBC and the BFI that he simply forgot to mention her. He then introduced her solely by first name and described her as more his secretary than his producer. Following this inauspicious beginning, he proudly announced that he would have bought her flowers, but he’s from Hull and “boys from Hull” don’t buy women flowers. Not only had he endlessly gendered her contribution in typically derogatory ways (is this really how one treats one’s producer and if so, what does that say about the filmmaker himself?) but he further managed to denigrate it as if really all she had done was make his appointments and his coffee.
The second inauspicious remark was made in the Q+A after the film, where the filmmaker insisted proudly that no matter where he makes his films, Japan, Yemen, Syria, his primary audience is always the same: his mates back in Hull who don’t travel the world like he does. This may not sound like a damning indictment to all readers, but it smacks of precisely the islander provincialism that would allow for a film to be made about one of the most complex and intractable political and humanitarian crises unfolding today, in a way that very nearly bypasses those complexities in favour of a familiar generic mould that could console an ignorant viewer in Hull. Transform the tragedy of a failed revolution turned bloody civil war, into a personal tragedy of love, worn thin by the inchoate tensions of an indecipherable external world pressing in on an otherwise “normal” [read: “just like us”] household. The assumption is that the politics of the situation are beyond the grasp of the simple publicans of McAllister’s hometown, but that love and difficult relationships are something we can all understand.
Further, we learn early in the film that McAllister is a filmmaker in search of a subject and when he finds a suitably dramatic scenario (loving husband bringing up a family while wife is unjustly imprisoned by a despotic regime) he recklessly homes in on their personal lives, probing their inner emotions, soliciting responses to leading questions, captures incriminating footage (of the family openly criticising the Assad regime, for instance), endangering their lives to the point of forcing their flight from the country, and then in effect, contributing to the ruination of a delicate yet viable relationship. The style of interviewing consists of, in essence, dogging the family members in English, a language most can barely speak, to simply repeat (mimic) the words he provides them with in the first place, thus confirming his place as voice-giver to these otherwise inarticulate subjects. He plays therapist to a family in crisis, with none of the training nor the emotional maturity to do so. A boy from Hull, who can’t even bring himself to respect his own producer properly, grants himself the powerful position of peace-maker and arbiter of a family drama that so far exceeds the limits of his emotional intelligence as to be an act of aggression in and of itself.
Here we have the worst of the filmmaker-adventurer, who blithely and with all of the entitlement of a (former) imperialist culture, takes and exacerbates a family crisis all for the exalted goal of enlightening his ignorant friends back home. The worst part about it is that everyone, from his commissioning editor at Channel four, to the powerful decision makers on BBC1 who made the unprecedented decision to broadcast it there, not to mention the 4 stars given it by Mark Kermode in the Guardian, are contributing to the filmmaker’s own self-congratulatory belief that his film is indeed a great masterpiece fusing art (tragic love story, a la Romeo and Juliette) with geo-politics in a way the great and good, if somewhat naïve and unworldly, people of England can understand.
The problem isn’t with the great people of England per se, who may or may not need to pandering to such a degree, but with the condescension of the filmmakers and commissioning editors, who would prefer to distil a complicated and intractable situation down to a story of star-crossed lovers, doomed by external circumstances beyond their control. Was it even external circumstances beyond their control that forced the family to flee Syria in one night, with only a flimsy suitcase and no proper papers? Well, in a sense, yes. If McAllister hadn’t gotten caught with the footage of the family still in his camera, they might have been able to stay in their home and had time to come to grips with their situation. Yet, given the risks this family had already undertaken as vocal critics of the regime even before the uprising and ensuing war, it is inconceivable to me that a filmmaker could add to the danger they already faced. Made that much further unimaginable by the fact that his continued filming was evidence of his implacable pursuit of his story—the unfolding drama, in part catalysed by his negligence and misplaced priorities—had to find its conclusion. Tragic or happy, it had to be resolved one way or the other and he would track them down wherever they might be (Lebanon, France, Turkey) I order to get the footage that would complete his story. More than once the subjects of the film question him as to why he is still there, filming them.
I have devoted my life to the documentary. I have made films and have studied others’ films. I write about, think about, and watch documentary during more of my waking hours than I can account for. Yet sometimes, when faced with films like this one, I hate the form. Documentary, thankfully, is so much more than this type of ambulance-chasing story-telling factory, needing human fodder to churn out gripping content in order to fill meaningless (if self-important) television programming hours. It can and often does do justice to the intricacies of history, to poetry, to life in general. It is the filmic form best suited for critique, defamiliarization, intellectual and ideological transformation. But when documentary goes for ratings, it generally does play to the simplistic formulas that palliate the fear of the other, transforming it into an anodyne reflection of ourselves—a reassuring message that no matter how different people may seem, we’re all the same in the end. Whether we are or are not all the same in the end, our circumstances are wildly different, as is our mode of expression. Imagine if Amer and Raghda, the couple at the heart of the film, could have expressed themselves in their native tongue, how much less naïve and basic they would have seemed. Yet that complexity had to be disallowed, in order for McAllister to tell a simple tale.
This is not an indictment of documentary per se. It is an indictment of the career documentarist who doggedly pursues people as if they are merely material for a story he can then, in effect, tell back at his local, over a pint. If you intend to point your camera at people, be sure that it is their lives, more than your career or your mates back home, that you are concerned with. Moreover, it strikes me that if there is any responsibility associated with the documentary filmmaker, it is precisely not to reduce their subjects to objects—mere matter for their message. There are so many ways to resist the formulaic and the simplistic, yet if opportunism is driving the filmmaker forward, as in this case, they are unlikely to make the effort to see what is actually there, preferring instead to shape the material into well-worn, familiar patterns.
Keywords: Documentary film, Documentary ethics, Sean McAllister, A Syrian Love Story