17/07/2013

Round Trip: a Syrian romance, from constraints to more constraints

Meyar al-Roumi tells us the old story of man and woman, set in a Syrian context

Syria

Round Trip: a Syrian romance, from constraints to more constraints

Round Trip, Syrian director Meyar al-Roumi’s first fiction feature, recently screened in two festivals in France —Lyon's Cinémas du Sud and the Cabourg Film Festival — after its premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) last year. As in the case of his two previous fiction shorts, Le Voyage de Rabia and L’Objet du désir, al-Roumi both wrote and directed the film.

As the opening credits aptly suggest, with their hopeful music over travelling shots on warm oil colours, this film is a painting, a 73-minute episode in Walid and Souhaire's unmarried love story. Like a painting has its frame, the film is encapsulated within the few days that it takes to make the round-trip between Damascus and Tehran by train.

Souhaire, tired of having to steal moments with her lover in his taxi, accepts a friend’s offer to visit her in Tehran, and Walid accompanies her. The couple embarks on the trip, hopeful and excited to be leaving their cover. As the scenery passes ceaselessly outside their windows, the couple manages to share some tender moments of love — with the controller’s complicity, that is, because, as they are not married, they must not share compartments. The closer the couple gets to Iran, the more inexorable the sense that their escape has only in fact been an exchange of their usual hiding place for another.

As this realisation dawns on the couple, the trip becomes gloomier, a mood that culminates when they arrive in the more conservative Tehran. What surprises the viewer is not that the trip could have failed to meet the hopeful young couple’s ideal, but that this mood of disenchantment and helplessness lasts until after their stay in Tehran, even when they arrive back in Damascus. Nothing has changed: their love remains without a place in society, always to be concealed.

Round Trip is as much a romantic film as it is a social commentary, both aspects present with equal consequence and balancing each other perfectly.

“Both are inseparable: The social context has always affected the relationship between man and woman,” al-Roumi told Euromed Audiovisual.  

In Walid and Souhaire’s situation, however, this necessity is all the more significant because “[the socio-political context] muddles the true question, that of the romantic relationship in the full sense of the term.”

The storyline follows the couple very closely, the camera never departing from its human characters for the sake of something larger.

But Meyar al-Roumi’s brilliantly composed frames, with divisive straight lines effectively creating frames-within-frames, never let us forget the context of the couple’s love story. The rectangular window showing us the passing scenery, the moving train on the left cutting through the arid landscape on the right, the door in Souhaire’s home separation her in the living room from her mother in the kitchen, the thin and long hall in the train confronting blue doors to blue curtains, all these, and more, visually restrain this narration of their love in the same way that we know their love is really restrained by society.

Walid and Souhaire’s relationship does not belong to them. It belongs to society, as its weakness.

Al-Roumi’s film would indeed have been quite despairing, as the previous description might suggest, had he not rendered its human aspect with equal emphasis, highlighting Souhaire’s and Walid’s hopes, fears, and feelings above all else.

Again, the mise-en-scène assumes the primordial responsibility with help from a unifying and comforting soundtrack.

“I wanted each spectator to live this journey, accompanying the characters in their love story," said al-Roumi, who said that he used the plastic aspect of cinema to this effect.

Witnessing such tenderness, we cannot doubt that Souhaire and Walid’s love is righteous and that the elements repressing it are misguided or perverted -- at least for “all viewers sensitive to relationships of love.”

Round Trip is finally neither optimistic nor despondent. We are assured of the beauty of the couple’s love, but it is a love that, whether in a taxi or in a train, is always on the move, always escaping its location, never finding a safe place to settle.

The film ran in the 2012 Dubai International Film Festival's Muhr Arab Feature Competition, where it won Alexandra Kahwagi a Special Mention for her interpretation of Souhaire. It was produced by the Paris-based Bizibi Productions, which has also produced al-Roumi’s earlier work, Le Voyage de Rabia.

 

Delfina Grinspan

 

Round Trip - Trailer:

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