Documentary filmmaker Sean McAllister follows a Syrian family over the course of five years
Sean McAllister’s A Syrian Love Story got him a nomination for an Outstanding Debut by the British Film Academy, which is odd, considering that the filmmaker has been shooting documentaries since at least 1998. His projects are as daring as they are diverse—a portrait of Iraqis both during and after Saddam Hussein’s rule; a look at territorial disputes between Israel and Palestine; an account of a Japanese businessman who lost it all; and a document of an unfolding revolution in Yemen.
McAllister’s latest film is as much about Syria as it is about the family he follows in the course of five years. The filmmaker first finds the country in a state of apparent peace, and visits the site of Palmyra—since then destroyed by Daesh—on a tour trip, but soon decides to look for a better story, something that would be “gritty.” “Why are you looking for something negative?” a woman asks him when he decides to contact political prisoners. “Gritty doesn’t mean negative, gritty means real!” he replies.
Soon, McAllister is sitting in a bar with Amer, a political opponent of the Assad regime who will become one of his subjects, and friends, in the course of the events that will befall the country. The titular love story is between Amer and his wife Raghda, who met in prison as inmates. He saw her through a hole in the door, her face bloodied and swollen, and started talking to her every day through a pipe. It’s quite a story to share with their children, but Raghda is imprisoned again when she tries to share it with a larger audience in the form of a book.
McAllister films indoors—with the family—which gives the documentary an appearance of a home-made movie. The violence that happens on the outside is either displayed on the family television screen or described, in astonishing and graphic detail, as an unremarkable occurrence, which reflects that it has become commonplace, something to be expected. When a speech by Hillary Clinton is broadcast the family is glued to the screen—she is part of a completely different world, and might as well be speaking from another planet.
Raghda is eventually freed, but it is McAllister who is arrested. The footage found on his camera is a threat to the family, so they must drop everything and travel to Lebanon as refugees. When the filmmaker is released, he reconnects with the family and their story resumes. It becomes clear that the couple’s marriage is falling apart. Amer wants no more than a quiet life and dreams of Europe, while Raghda, a freedom fighter, cannot adapt to any other existence and feels that she has abandoned her cause. “She cannot be Che Guevara and a mother,” says Amer when she leaves them to reconnect with the revolutionary movement.
What the documentary does best is show a division within Syrian society, and people’s reaction to the conflict. One of the couple’s sons showcases a particularly poignant progression. As the film starts, he declares himself ready to fight the regime, but several years later, from France, he reflects on the fact that a comfortable life is not easy to give up. “Nobody wants to build this [country, Syria,] again. Everybody wants to go out … I will stay in France.”
A Syrian Love Story will screen on Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. in H-110, in the presence of director Sean McAllister and protagonist Amer Daoud.