When Syrian director Nidal al-Dibs spoke to a Cairene audience about his documentary Black Stone on DOX BOX Global Day last Thursday, the filmmaker, who has only ever had two screenplays approved by the Syrian government's National Film Organisation, told a familiar story of state censorship.
Al-Dibs was one of eight Syrian filmmakers, both alive and deceased, to have their documentaries screened all over the world during Syria’s fifth DOX BOX film festival on March 15. The festival was held in exile this year, both to protest the violence of the Syrian regime a year into the popular uprising, and to screen films not allowed in the country. In Cairo at the new Mosireen Cimatheque, documentary lovers gathered to see Step by Step (1978) by Oussama Mohammed and Silence (2006) by young award-winning filmmaker Rami Farah, as well as al-Dibs’ banned film, Black Stone (2006).
Al-Dibs first started making his documentary Black Stone for the United Nations’ Children Fund (UNICEF), who wanted to highlight the plight of Syrian children in the poor area of Black Stone, just outside the Syrian capital Damascus. In the beginning, the documentary was to be co-produced by UNICEF and the Syrian ministry of information.
Black Stone started off as a small village, the filmmaker explained, but soon grew when Syrians from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Palestinians, and poor agricultural labourers moved there. Home to a high percentage of Syria’s marginalised poor, it was often the site of protests. But still when the filmmaker’s team arrived in the area, despite the fact that they only lived half an hour away, they did not expect what they saw.
Black Stone, al-Dibs’ first documentary in 20 years of directing, follows four young boys from this neighbourhood, collecting scrap metal to help their families and wandering through Damascus. Their stories and dreams are set to a backdrop of lack of education or vocational training, poor healthcare, domestic violence, and nights at the police station.
When Black Stone was finished, there was supposed to be a public screening in Syria, but the film was banned several days before it, and the ministry of information withdrew its financial support, explained al-Dibs. Several days later, the country’s UNICEF office, probably eager not to upset its host country, withdrew from the project too. Suddenly, al-Dibs had no producer. He and his partner had to produce it instead.
This is not an uncommon story in Syria, according to Egyptian cinema critic Samir Farid who attended the screening. The first-ever feature-length documentary in Arabic was Everyday Life in a Syrian Village (watch the film here). Made in 1972, it was written by Saadallah Wanos and directed by Omar Amiralay, a “real pioneer of Syrian cinema” who only ever made documentaries, including the DOX BOX-featured A Flood in Ba’ath Country (2003), despite censorship and no market for the genre. Everyday Life in a Syrian Village, in black and white, was very avant-garde at the time, and showed the misery of life in the village, with a leitmotif every five minutes of a farmer taking off his jalabiyya in despair. This film too, despite being initially produced by the Syrian ministry of culture, was banned and remains banned in Syria until today, according to the Farid.
“Even when it was shown in the Cairo Cineclub in 1974, the Syrian embassy in Cairo made big problems with the Egyptian government,” he says.
Since 1972, only perhaps 100 documentaries have been made in Syria, says Farid, of which roughly 50 were about Palestine, not particularly Syrian topics. All over the Arab world, until about 10 years ago, documentaries were only government films, of which 90 percent were propaganda, he says. But since the advent of the digital era, everything is changing. Filmmakers can now make films at home, without having to worry about censorship. The only thing that has not changed is the very limited market.
“TV stations still say that you have to thank them and thank God for them showing your [documentary] film!” says Farid. “But I think things will change...”
Already things are changing in Syria, according to al-Dibs. Three years ago, he was “the young director”, but now a flurry of new younger filmmakers such as Rami Farah, whose film was also screened as part of DOX BOX, have emerged, making short films and documentaries.
And their contribution in documenting current events is vital. Holding a camera, he said, is a responsability.
Everyday Life in a Syrian Village by Omar Amiralay: