THREE GUYS ON THE ROAD
An encounter with three artists from the world of acting and film: Amer Matar, founder of the Syrian Mobile Film Festival; Talal Derki, director of the award-winning documentary Return to Homs; and the actor Ayham Magid Agha, a member of Gorki Theatre
One question may occur to you when you see Amer, Talal, and Ayham together in Berlin: Is it just a coincidence that they’ve all ended up here, or did they choose the city intentionally? It’s a fair question, and not only for these three, but for the entire network of young Syrian artists in Berlin. Even if Berlin was in the beginning just a coincidence, the more Syrian artists settled here, the more their friends and colleagues sought to join them. The city has afforded these artists a chance to gain prominence in the European cultural and social scenes, not as guests, but as constituent parts of the continent’s cultural activity.
Life in Germany wasn’t easy at first. When Talal arrived in Berlin in the summer of 2013 to edit his film Return to Homs, the revolution in Syria was in full swing, and, hoping for its eventual success, Talal had no desire to get attached to his new city. He saw nothing of Berlin but what was along the seven-minute walk between his apartment and the editing studio near Hermannplatz.
As for Amer, he had arrived in a village near Cologne a year before before Talal came to the country. He was surprised by the lush green of the Rheinland spring. Amer says that he couldn’t have imagined that Germany would become his home, or that his family and friends, Talal and Ayham, would come to live here as well — at the time, Syria was his entire world. After he was released from Moukhabarat [secret police] custody in Damascus, he found out he had received a grant to go to Germany. Though he had been hoping to join friends in Paris instead, he decided to accept the grant. He still considers his existence in Germany a random accident.
But these days, Berlin has begun to feel like home. These three artists’ sense of belonging is largely due to their sense of belonging to the Syrian community in the city, and especially to their mutual friends who have moved here. Without these people, they would feel significantly more alienated. Amer, at least, knows what it means to find one’s way in a new city: he likens his relocation to Berlin to his experience, ten years earlier, of leaving his home city of Raqqa for Damascus. Berlin has become a new Damascus, a new home, thanks to his relationships with his family and friends
“We feel that home is each other, being together.”
When Talal arrived in Germany, chemical weapons had been deployed in Syria and ISIS had appeared. He decided to seek a future in Europe as his friends had done. At that time, the refugee crisis was not yet acute in Europe, so Talal and his family were awarded humanitarian protection visas [schutzbedürftige Menschen]; a year and a half later, they were given refugee status instead.
For Ayham, coincidence played a more important more than for Amer and Talal. The very day he was heading to the Berlin airport to fly to Lebanon, Lebanon announced that Syrians could no longer enter the country without a visa. Ayham not only had no visa, but no money and no friends in Germany at all (the Syrian presence was not as great then). He slept at the airport and, later, in public parks. He didn’t know what to do next. A bicycle accident provided a turning point: the bicyclist, a girl called Heidi, though she accidentally broke his arm, afterwards became his angel of mercy. She lent him her internet connection, and soon become close friends with Ayham’s whole “tribe.” She now works with Talal’s production company, Jouzour. Ayham, for his part, was eventually granted a six-month visa. One funny development: he later married a German woman, but was granted political asylum rather than a spousal residence permit.
These three young men began their friendship in Damascus, where they worked together to document protests against the Syrian regime. Ayham says being in Berlin has not changed their relationship: they’re still working together the way they always have. Amer still produces documentaries with his non-profit association A-shar3; Talal, who spent 2011 filming in Daraa, Homs, and elsewhere, recently returned from shooting his new film in Idlib and Aleppo. Before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Talal says that they spent their time dreaming up films and art projects. But those dreams and attempts yielded no results. He pauses a little, contemplating, and continues: “Maybe even if we had stayed in Syria and the revolution had not broken out, we would have found a way to do these projects eventually. They needed more time.”
Talal turns again to the topic of the group’s friendship and confirms Ayham’s words: “We hung out in Damascus. What unites us is our sense of safety when we are together, we feel like we’re a tribe. We feel that home is each other, being together. Now, in Berlin, I can say that I feel no longer in exile, I feel we are human beings with no fixed geography — all of our relationships, our emotions, and the moments that we share are home for me. On the other hand, I can tell you that most of my friends in Syria have moved to Berlin.”
Talal no longer lives in the world of virtual communication that most Syrians abroad were forced to live in; his world here is tangible. Amer confirms this: when he first arrived in Berlin, his life was heavily linked to social media. Everyone he knew was outside Germany, so he was constantly re-charging his mobile phone to make calls abroad. Now, things are different; he rarely has to call anyone outside Germany.
Their relationship to their new city prompts certain questions for the three artists on the future of Syrian identity and the role exile plays in shaping it. Amer explains: “Syrians are now exiled in Turkey, France, Sweden, and Germany, so all these places will affect what kind of Syrian personalities develop around the world; there will be French Syrians, German or Berlin Syrians. However, the situation in Berlin is different from the one in Paris, for example, where I think there’s previous generation of Syrians who are looking after the new arrivals. Here in Germany, we are almost the first Syrians here; we’re exploring everything from the beginning.”
Their geographical distance from Syria has affected the group’s relationship with their home country. Talal and Amer used to travel to Syria often; until 2014, Amer could go to Aleppo or even Raqqa via Turkey, but now, the visa requirement imposed by the Turkish government and the dangers of the road make such travel impossible. All three artists mock these security risks and say that city of Urfa has become a subordinate of the Islamic State, even if it’s offically a Turkish city. Ayham says sarcastically: “There [in Urfa] they walk around wearing explosive belts.
The true question here is: What does Syria mean now for them after all this social and physical destruction?
That city is where ISIS slaughtered the first two Syrian media activists outside Syria.” Ayham talks about the security situation for photographers and filmmakers in his home city of Deir ez-Zor, which was difficult even before the revolution. With the outbreak of the protests and its evolution into an armed conflict, however, the tension among militias has become more heated. For example, he reports, if you are filming with the [less radical] Free Army, they may decide overnight to switch their allegiance to the Al-Nusra Front [the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda], and they will execute you because they think that you are an atheist and work with the Free Army. Ayham’s description of the social situation in Deir ez-Zor conjures up a terrible scene of increasing radicalism. Ayham says that 60% of the belligerents were basically friends, sometimes connected by blood or former tribal alliances — and therein lies the potential for disaster. They know each other well and can easily fabricate accusations of atheism and betrayal against one another. Every militia has a period of dominance during which it issues an execution list; this list is modified with every change of power. No one group is dominant for long.
The three artists spoke in detail about Deir ez-Zor, but there is not enough space here to record all of their stories. The true question here is: What does Syria mean now for them after all this social and physical destruction? Amer does not consider the areas controlled by the regime or by ISIS to even be Syrian. He says that the regions under regime control have changed: Tartous, for example, where more than two million people have fled from Aleppo, Idlib, and Deir ez-Zor, has become foreign to him. Despite his current alienation with Syria, Amer insists that if he had the chance, he would still go to visit Raqqa. He smiles and adds: “I would love to live there someday.” As for Talal, he is afraid to return to Syria after what has happened. He is afraid of the solitude of a place where everything has changed, even the people. He also mentions that he no longer feels that Damascus is his home — it’s Berlin now.
Edward Said writes of exiles’ increased critical sensitivity toward both their missed homeland and their new country of residence. This sensitivity seems clear when Ayham talks about Deir ez-Zor, his hometown. He says that, while he did have a relationship to Damascus, where he worked as an actor for many years, Deir ez-Zor didn’t even have a theatre. There is nothing for him there, and even if he did wish to return, his German wife and daughter couldn’t stand the city’s 200 days of dust storms per year.
Before the revolution, Deir ez-Zor did not mean anything to Ayham, who describes it as an ugly, reconstructed city. Ninety percent of the buildings are expensive monstrosities, soulless houses not held to any sort of building code. (The statistics Ayham cites may seem exaggerated, but are not far from realistic.) Ayham says that Deir ez-Zor would be insignificant without the Euphrates River. After the city was demolished in the 1970s, it was rebuilt into another version of the same mess. Ayham smiles sarcastically and continues: “I feel that its people are lucky now after the destruction — they have a chance to rebuild this place for a second time. We’ll see.”
Talking about Syrian identity with people from the world of cinema led to a question about their reaction to films produced by the Syrian regime. What if one of these films appears in a festival they’re attending? Amer answers passionately: “Imagine that someone sent a film about the Nazis and their importance in the world to a German film festival — would they accept it? In this case, I think that the rejection is an axiomatic thing.”
Syrians will always remember the hours of waiting on Fridays for news of the demonstrations and live broadcasts that were transmitted via satellite channels from antiregime regions.
Talal was no less severe than Amer, declaring that he would sit in front of the theatre where such a film was playing to prevent people from watching it. Talal believes that cinema is linked to eternity because it immortalizes a fleeting moment. The regime’s films distort the reality of the killing, destruction, and displacement it perpetrates. Ayham highlights an important aspect of this issue, one related to his career as an actor. He wouldn’t necessarily object to working with actors who were loyal to the regime, he says; he would not judge someone to be immoral merely because they were loyal to the regime any more than he would unconditionally accept a revolutionary who perpetuated violence and crime. He considers both types of people to be equally immoral and emphasizes that revolutionary fervor does not excuse unethical work.
Before the revolution, Talal explains, cinematic production was tightly restricted by a mafia made up of military officials and state-run production companies. This arrangement made work nearly impossible for independent filmmakers. Talal, driven to despair, used to work in commercial programs just to earn his living. In his view, the revolution broke the monopoly, and he believed change was possible and worked to achieve it using his own preferred tools, just as many others in Syria did.
Any follower of the Syrian artistic and cultural scene will have noticed the great progress made in documentary filmmaking over the last five years. Syrian documentaries have been presented in major film festivals around the world, but if life in Syria had continued as it was before the revolution, new names would not have been able to emerge, Talal says.
We tried to identify what had led to this explosion in documentary filmmaking. One factor may be that, in the beginning, the peaceful revolution depended on videos being uploaded on YouTube to refute the regime’s allegations that nothing was happening. Talal reminds us of the first videos circulated to the world on March 18, 2011, showing two demonstrators who had been shot in Daraa. Then, on the same day, another video was uploaded of security forces suppressing peaceful demonstrators in the city. At one point, a security officer points his rifle towards the videographer, who screams, “Kill me! I want the whole world to see and know what is happening!” Syrians will always remember the hours of waiting on Fridays for news of the demonstrations and live broadcasts that were transmitted via satellite channels from anti-regime regions.
“I feel that what is happening in reality is much stranger than fiction...”
Talal explains his motivation for working on documentaries instead of fictional films: “I’m able to make my story alive, I can live with its real characters, I can live it. It’s not at all like being with actors and working on a fictional story, even if it’s based on true events.” He continues: “I feel life passionately, the relationship between life and death. In this case, as a documentary director, I’m the weakest one, and everyone around me is stronger than me. I go to film and do not know what is waiting for me, while with a fictional film, everything is prepared and the director is like a god.” On the other hand, Talal admits, “Whoever has the guts now to do fictional films must reflect reality or deal with it.” Amer agrees: “I feel that what is happening in reality is much stranger than fiction, so why don’t we capture the moments of reality we can? Sometimes I feel like I cannot believe what’s happening in reality because of its importance, its strangeness and aesthetics. What’s happening now in Syria deserves our time and effort to capture it as it is. There are a lot of important stories everywhere in Syria — in every part of Syria, people think that they have the most important stories that should be known to the whole world. However, you cannot present everything that happened in a film, not even in news reports, but the fact that Syrians in Syria protest that their areas are not being covered enough in the media is an indicator of the intensity and reality of what is happening there.”
While most Syrian documentaries revolve around this effort to record what has happened and continues to happen in Syria itself, the refugee issue and the often deadly Mediterranean passages to Europe have been addressed as well. Ayham thinks the imbalance may be because Syrian filmmakers tended to consider those who had arrived in Europe as safe. In Amer’s opinion, Syrians should focus on providing the world with an image of what is taking place in Syria, since the battle with the regime is not over yet. Moreover, there is a peaceful side to the revolution: people continue to protest, despite the battles and shelling.
There is a lot of hard work to be accomplished to keep the peaceful revolution going. At the same time, the experience of these three artists in Berlin testifies to the ability of human beings, afflicted by war and violence, to create multiple and open-minded identities free of geographical borders.
Praise for A Syrious Look
„À Berlin, les artistes syriens retrouvent le goût de la création“, Le Figaro
“Berlins wild charmes make it first for Syrian artists.“, The Local
„Ernst und Syrisch“
„Berlin, nouvelle capitale des artistes syriens en exil“
A SYRIOUS LOOK in the Media
Deutsche Welle Online
TNR Television (Turkey)
Publico Magazin (Portugal)