Centre du Cinéma et de l'Audiovisuel de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, 2017
Philippe Van Leeux
📷 : Licensed from Shutterstock
Suspenseful and intense thrillers
Movies and TV shows with heavy subjects
In Syria dramatizes the life of an extended family living out the Syrian civil war from their Damascus apartment as sporadic sniper fire rings out and bombs drop around them without warning. Years after commencement of the conflict, the once-bustling city is only a shell of its former self, now closer to resembling a post-apocalyptic scene from the 1984 film, The Terminator. Giant pieces of concrete and severely damaged buildings are omnipresent remnants of the war. Abandoned, smashed, and dust‑covered cars sitting idle in unlikely places appear not only as relics of the conflict, but as reminders of the lives and neighborhoods that once thrived here.
Headed by Oum Yazan as the mother of three, played by Hiam Abbass (Succession, Inheritance), the 10‑person household contains her pre-adolescent boy and two teenage girls, along with her young adult nephew and father-in-law. Additional occupants include her housekeeper, Delhani, played by Juliette Navis (The Tunnel, Paris), and a young couple (Samir and Halima) with their infant son who were neighbors in the now nearly empty and damaged building.
As if being on edge about bombs dropping all around is not enough, the family is terrorized by Syrian security forces who randomly knock on the door, insisting that they enter to ensure enemy combatants are not holed up inside. Each occurrence is terrifying and nerve-wracking as Oum holds them off, repeatedly asserting that her husband is not home.
In Syria feels like a play rather than a film and is reminiscent of the 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun. Released on the big screen in 1961, the film stars Sidney Poitier and the late actresses, Claudia McNeil and Ruby Dee, as an extended family struggling to get by in a small Chicago apartment. Like most of the scenes in A Raisin in the Sun, In Syria takes place in a single setting, an apartment. Both stories are about survival and depict families in desperate and emotional situations. The productions, however, differ in their struggles. In A Raisin in the Sun, the struggle relates to quality of life–the ability to pay the bills and be able to experience a piece of the proverbial American dream by owning a home. In Syria highlights the struggle to simply survive another day.
The stories also differ in the characters’ views of the family unit. In A Raisin in the Sun, matriarch Lena Younger treats everyone in the household as family; conversely, In Syria’s protagonist, Oum, views family as those only related by blood. This comes through when the housekeeper explains to Oum, in exasperation, that she has been holed up there for days and needs to get home to her son. Oum stares at her and snaps “Get back to work.” And later in the film, Oum makes a grave and typically regrettable decision, yet exhibits no remorse for doing so.
Not noted as a hero in the reviews is Karim, the young nephew played by Elias Khatter. In only his late teens, he stands strong and respectfully pleads with his aunt to allow him to help. She shushes him, her mind made up. Later, he does what he feels compelled to do over the objections of others.
Watching this sequence, I could not help but wonder if we are so focused on designating women as heroines that we sometimes get short-circuited in our determination to do so. While Oum’s desperation to keep her family safe is understandable, she exploits and sacrifices other women to do so. The fact that the women carry traits associated with groups who have historically been exploited indicates their casting was strategic. Since their characteristics fit the stereotypes of socially acceptable expendables, their representations in the film are palatable and makes the women’s treatment by Oum easy to overlook as problematic.
The impact of this casting, though, undermines the film’s goal to make Oum the heroine of In Syria. Heroism is sacrifice of self and the taking of risk for others–the very antithesis of exploitation. These do not characterize Oum’s actions; rather, they are the actions of her young nephew, Karim. Is he not viewed as the hero because he is a man and popular sentiment now leans toward making women the heroes of stories, even when their characters are not?
It can even be argued that the casting of a first-time actor in the role of Karim was designed to make it easy to situate Oum as the hero of this story. Karim’s casting eliminates familiar actors from the competition for recognition. Still though, heroism occurs through deeds, self-sacrifice, and demonstrations of courage. Oum is exploitative–and worse yet, exploits other women and women in a socially weaker position than hers.
Fake heroism does not yield sweet fruit. It just doubles down on the contention that identities are constructed through biased lenses. Perhaps the film warrants your own take. What you will certainly appreciate from the presentation is the terror of living in the midst of war.