Following on from 2012’s tough and powerful documentary about the Yemeni revolution, The Reluctant Revolutionary, Sean McAllister has moved to Syria with A Syrian Love Story, a documentary he has been making over the last six years.
In 2009, McAllister was filming in Syria when he met Amer, a Palestinian freedom fighter who had recently been released from prison. He had been left alone to bring up his two children, Kaka and Bob, since his wife, Raghda, a Syrian activist, has been imprisoned. McAllister follows their attempts to cope with life under Assad’s regime, their joy at the release of Raghda and their lives as refugees first to the Lebanon and then in France following their forced exile.
Following this family from 2009 through to 2015, McAllister captures the turmoil that this family goes through, making the documentary an engrossing personal examination of the troubles in Syria. It is a committed, campaigning film because it has chosen a side and pursues its agenda with an unarguable honesty. McAllister’s films are works of journalism since they inform the viewer about what is going on in a faraway place, but his methods are interventions. Most Westerners, if they pay any attention at all, find the whole situation too confusing or depressing, which ought to indicate the failures of most of our mainstream journalism to keep us adequately informed. The Syrian conflict is one of the most tragic and significant moments in this millennium and we should understand it. Here the audience sees the collapse of a country and the suffering of the Syrian people, and the engaged viewer should leave the film with their opinions much more fixed on the problems in Syria. McAllister’s film is, then, a very important film because it enters into the sphere of this conflict and attempts to radically alter its audience’s views on Syria.
McAllister’s ultimate subject, as with The Reluctant Revolutionary, are his human subjects and he addresses this conflict in human terms in a way that should move all of us. McAllister’s main focus is on this family and this family is not supposed to stand for all of the Syrian people, but only for themselves. It is a very personal film. Amer, Raghda, Kaka and Bob have granted McAllister a remarkable amount of access – they live in front of his camera without embarrassment and with total honesty. Raghda is ultimately a committed activist – at one point, she says that for her to leave Syria now when it needs her most is tantamount to treason – while Amer is more worried about giving his children a future. Amer and Raghda ultimately move to France as asylum seekers but their lives are riven by the traumas of their past. Amer wants Raghda to leave Syria behind and be a mother, but Raghda feels only guilt. Ultimately, this leads to the dissolution of their marriage but the film ends hopefully with Amer having secured his children’s futures in France and Raghda working as an advisor for the Syrian opposition in Turkey, twenty miles from the Syria border, feeling happy and of use to her suffering country. The film also follows Amer and Raghda’s two sons as they grow up on the move. Early on, we see Kaka amused by the picture of Assad in his schoolbook, his school trying to teach him to love the man who put both of his parents in prison. Later, we will see Kaka, more grown up but equally conflicted by his country’s troubles.
This film is quietly heart-breaking – a tragic story told in a way that will affect all of us. It should change how we look at this crisis and every other crisis in this world, not as a confusing mess of one cruel dictator, his faceless accomplices and a huge intangible crowd of victims, but in humanitarian terms. It is then a deeply important film and a rousing political documentary that keeps its focus squarely on a story of average humans.