Finding the Right Language: A Conversation with Syrian Filmmaker Usama Muhammad

Pamela Nice

Hafez al-Assad died four days before I visited Syria on a Malone Fellowship. When I arrived, the ubiquitous pictures of Hafez were draped with strips of black cloth, and heir apparent Bashar's picture was displayed alongside his father's. The Malone Fellows arrived just at this time of transition, when hopes for a better future mingled with feelings of grief and relief at Assad's passing.

This was my first visit to Syria , a country of many treasures known to few Americans, and an important cultural crossroads throughout its history. Unfortunately, the Syria we too often see in the U.S. media is a one-dimensional “rogue state,” or “country of concern,” (the State Department's new label), a sponsor of terrorism and Israel 's arch-enemy.

Of course, the nation has many dimensions, and stereotypes quickly fade as one travels the country and gets to know individual Syrians. Professors, political and religious leaders, and writers shared with the Malone Fellows their perspectives on Syrian politics, its economy, religious attitudes, and daily life. The picture of Syria that emerged from their commentary was a country in crisis. The combined factors of thirty years of Assad's closed political system; a command economy; a soaring birth rate; and the emigration of some of the most talented Syrians have all depleted the country of its resources and drained the blood from its artistic and intellectual culture.

Information is controlled and distorted through a government press, and any reliable social and cultural analysis probably wouldn't be published. The situation reminded me of what Judge Said Al-Ashmawy told my students in Egypt last year on the subject of the development of intellectual and artistic life in a society: “Without freedom of speech, you have only a culture of rumor.”

The truth of Ashmawy's statement was confirmed by many of the Syrians I met on my visit. Fortunately for Syria , artists like filmmaker Usama Muhammad do not accept this culture of rumor. I had the privilege of talking with him at a café in downtown Damascus this past June.


“How will I recognize you?”

“By my shoes. Nikes. Very old — very old.” This was my introduction to Usama Muhammad's humor while arranging our interview.

He showed up with the Nikes in the lobby of the Al Iwan Hotel, where I was staying. We rode in the National Film Organization van to the Rawda Café. The government-donated van was 30 or 40 years old and the worse for wear, but colorfully decorated inside with gold, pink, blue and green feathers and streamers. I noticed some large orange containers in the van and asked Muhammad what was in them. “What, do you think we're terrorists?” He asked. A pause — I wasn't sure how to respond to this. “It's uranium,” he said.

Usama Muhammad has worked in film for 13 years. His first film, “ Nujum al-Nahar ” (The Stars of the Day, 1987) concerned a Don Quixote-like figure who had illusions of grandeur which contrast markedly with his surroundings. “It was about power in Syria : how power from above destroys natural human relations,” Muhammad said. Syrian film critic Diana Jabbour, in “Screens of Life,” describes the “unrelenting sarcasm” of the film, as well as its ability to speak to the concerns and understanding of the Syrian public. But even though the film was critically praised, the official position was that “it's not the time to show such films” in Syria . It was banned and has only been seen in a few private screenings and abroad.

“Do you feel free to have anything you say printed in America ?” I asked him. He bristled. “Of course. As individuals we try to be free, even if our system is ‘closed,' as you say. We speak freely —even to Americans!”.... The trick, according to Muhammad, is to find one's own cinematic language that is indirect, so one can make films about political power, religion, sex, and violence in a metaphorical — and often more powerful — way.

The film opened up dialogue about life in Syria , however, and that was crucial to Muhammad. For him, dialogue requires the presentation of points of view different from the “official discourse.”

“Do you feel free to have anything you say printed in America ?” I asked him. He bristled. “Of course. As individuals we try to be free, even if our system is ‘closed,' as you say. We speak freely —even to Americans!”

This brought us to the issue of state censorship of Syrian films. “In film and TV, there are two responses to the censorship rules,” he said. “One, to make bad art and talk about nothing, or two, to say what you want to say and make art.”

The censors take a look at one's script and then the final film product before it is copied for distribution. Muhammad became impassioned here: “Syrian films do not belong to the official discourse.” Filmmakers who are artists are interested in people's feelings, everyday life, “the deep movements in society.” The trick, according to Muhammad, is to find one's own cinematic language that is indirect, so one can make films about political power, religion, sex, and violence in a metaphorical—and often more powerful—way.

For Muhammad, who has made only one feature film so far, artistic integrity is of utmost importance. He calls it being “brave with myself,” speaking without compromise despite the shadow of the censor. “I am very strong with the censors,” he said, but there is no denying their power. “You can spend three to four years preparing and making a film, and pass all the censorship committees; but it can disappear at any time with one phone call.”

There is no film industry in Syria , Muhammad explained, only the cinema of one for each year; films are now produced only through the public sector, following the former Soviet model. In fact, Muhammad and several other current Syrian filmmakers studied at the Cinema Institute of Moscow. However, the Syrian government has never followed the Soviet model of building a film industry, with a structure to fund and develop a body of work. Consequently, each filmmaker–and there aren't many–struggles to produce a few films in an entire career.

Muhammad spent at least three years on his first film, and expects to spend that much time or more on his next one. First he writes a comprehensive text for the film, and then he carves the script from it. “They give me a room at the National Film Organization building, and I spend several years on bureaucracy and paperwork. “ His last film took almost five months to shoot, more than that of many other filmmakers. He does not feel any time pressure when shooting, but takes the time necessary for the project.

He films his own scripts, as do many other Syrian filmmakers, and works with only one camera (“the Soviet style”). Actors may be professionals, inexperienced people off the streets, or other film directors and writers. He spends a good deal of time finding just the right actors for his projects, often preferring the natural and spontaneous acting of non-professionals. He encourages the actors to improvise on his script and willingly changes his own ideas or words when he thinks the actors have made an improvement.

Currently, he is working on the text for his second film, a look at the relationship between isolation and violence. It will focus on a village family as a metaphor for the human condition anywhere. Muhammad wants to explore the reaction to the Other. “When you don't trust the ‘Others,' you are afraid of them, you think they are the enemy. You reject them even when it may be against your own personal interests and needs. There is a non-dialogue when what you really need is dialogue.”

From the café, Muhammad took me to the National Film Organization building, where I met and chatted with a couple of other filmmakers and a young actor, Orwa Nyrabia. Nyrabia graduated last year from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Art in Damascus , one of six graduates in acting and 10 in film criticism. He worked four years for his diploma, and is now seeking theater experience outside Syria since there is little opportunity in his own country.

Again I was reminded of Judge Ashmawy's words. Perhaps in the Syria of the future, students like Nyrabia might be eager to plunge into the artistic life in Damascus . And Usama Muhammad‘s films would not be carefully hidden from a public that deserves to see them.

This interview appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 31, Spring 2000.

Copyright © 2000 AL JADID MAGAZINE