Sean McAllister’s A Syrian Love Story, filmed over 5 years, has been described as a documentary that “charts the journey to freedom in the West by Raghda, Amer, and their family.” What it actually does is chart the disillusionment experienced by a pro-revolution Syrian-Palestinian couple through the years following the 2011 uprising, and the effect this disillusionment has on their relationship. As with most cases of trauma, it is only once the family is safe that the true impact of the turmoil of the last few years becomes apparent. At several points in the film, Amer and Raghda comment on how quickly everything has happened, how events have snowballed out of control, how they have not been able to process it fully. This is a story that will be familiar to many who had hopes in the so-called Arab Spring, only much more intense, because of the scale of the destruction in Syria.
One of the most heartbreaking moments in the film is when their youngest son Bob remembers “our sweet days” in Tartous. His father tells him that they “will return when Bashar falls,” but the child keeps repeating that Assad destroyed Syria. When his mother tells him that they will be safe and that they will return and that France will give him a “big passport,” he asks if they will give him a “big knife” to kill Assad instead.
Although the film is about Amer and Raghda’s relationship, it is Bob who is its heart. We watch him grow up from before the revolution until 2015, hearing and seeing everything around him. As his older brother Kaka comments, Bob is “like the mukhabarat” – he knows everything. So we watch as a young child watches the descent of his country into chaos and war, and like him, we see the impact this has on the relationship between his parents.
In the Frontline Club Q&A, Yasmin Alibhai Brown mentions that the film reminds her of photograph of a refugee couple sharing a kiss that went viral – this photograph, I believe. There have been numerous other examples of this kind of humanization of the refugees, a variation on the images and interviews with refugees taking along their cats or their dogs. See, these examples seem to tell us, these people are human, they have emotions, they love their family and their pets.
McAllister is quite open about taking this approach, in the Sheffield Doc/Fest Q&A for example he noted that when audiences are often not interested in Syria, “big themes like love are important to help bridge…to take us to places.” What the film actually achieves however is to take us beyond this rosy, warm feelings “we are all human” approach – we see the good, the bad, and the ugly as we go through the rollercoaster of emotions with the family. There are moments when the pain of what they have been though gets too much, and it is raw and disturbing, and sometimes the awareness that this is all being recorded feels invasive and uncomfortable.
Although it is called a love story, the film is actually as “unromantic” as Tammam Azzam’s Kiss: the couple’s initial idealism, their romantic meeting in prison, their political activism, their comradeship throughout the years, only highlight the pain and suffering they experience, the dislocation of being forced to leave their country as it is torn apart by a brutal dictatorship and by sectarian conflict, the disillusionment and despair that comes after high hopes of freedom.