Six years ago, Hull-born filmmaker Sean McAllister set out to make a ‘gritty’ documentary on Syria, which was then bidding to boost its status as an international tourist destination. But, as he became caught up in the country’s rapid and terrifying descent into civil war, he could hardly have imagined just how ‘gritty’ the end result would turn out to be.
A Syrian Love Story begins in the capital Damascus in 2009, when McAllister chances upon Amer Douad – a Palestinian activist who was, at that time, living with his three sons in the coastal town of Tartus, and who agrees to let McAllister document his family.
Noticeably absent, but frequently mentioned and seen in family photos, is Amer’s wife Raghda – jailed for writing a book criticising President Bashar Assad’s regime. Amer himself has led demonstrations against the government and also had a spell in prison (where he met Raghda), but it is clear, even at this early stage, that he prizes a secure family life for his sons over any revolutionary fervour.
McAllister’s film is almost entirely shot with a handheld camera, and occasionally hidden cameras, giving a raw, almost fly-on-the-wall, impression. But, while McAllister only appears on camera himself a handful of times, he is very much part of the documentary, not just an off-screen editor. He is the one who puts forward the questions; he is the one we hear talking to Amer and his family, and who gradually gets to know them well – so well that the viewer is party to some of their most intimate day-to-day moments. The only nod to more conventional filmmaking is the inclusion of music, much of which is Arabic; and at other moments it subtly enhances the drama, particularly that which unfolds within Amer’s family.
Indeed, as the situation in Syria begins to unravel, so do the lives of Amer, Raghda and their sons. Bob, the youngest, is just three when it becomes too dangerous to remain in Tartus, and the film follows them as they flee from country to country. It is here where we begin to see the horror of the conflict from the children’s perspective. Middle son Kaka’s eyes become hard and steely as he describes how youngsters were blindfolded and beaten by police, treated no differently to adults. Shortly after, Raghda is among a handful of political prisoners released following international pressure on the government, and we see her for the first time, enjoying a tender reunion with Amer and the boys.
The film stops abruptly when McAllister reveals he was caught by the secret police, blindfolded and thrown in jail. His camera and footage of the family was taken from him, and he was locked in a room where he could only hear, but not see, the sounds of torture – constant shouting, screaming and slapping.
Meanwhile, now fearing for their own safety as a result, Amer, Raghda and the boys flee into Lebanon with just a few possessions between them. READ MORE VIA OUR DIGITAL MAGAZINE BELOW..