Film of the week: Insyriated evokes life under siege in Damascus

Confined to 24 hours in a flat in Syria, this masterfully claustrophobic drama reminds us that war rages within walls as well as without.

Nikki Baughan

from our October 2017 issue

Hiam Abbass as Oum Yazan in Philippe Van Leeuw’s Insyriated

Hiam Abbass as Oum Yazan in Philippe Van Leeuw’s Insyriated

Spoiler alert: this review reveals key plot details

With the Arab Spring uprising of 2011 failing to deliver on its promises of democratic freedom, instead plunging the region into a sustained period of violent instability, filmmakers have responded by turning their cameras on the crisis in different ways. In Syria alone, where the civil war between Bashar al-Assad’s government forces and rebel fighters has left an estimated 450,000 people dead, a wave of feature films has highlighted the horrific new realities of life in the country.

These have, understandably, mostly taken the form of documentaries, such as Orlando von Einsiedel’s Oscar-winning short The White Helmets (2016), about the first responders who risk their lives to save others, or Matthew Heineman’s recent City of Ghosts, which profiles the fearless citizen journalists of Raqqa. Some filmmakers have, however, used the backdrop of civil unrest for fictional dramas, such as Mohamed Molas, whose 2013 romance Ladder to Damascus used the fighting to underscore themes of grief and loss. Now, Belgian cinematographer-turned-director Philippe Van Leeuw confronts a city in conflict head-on and, in doing so, presents a devastatingly direct and intimate study of the effects of war on ordinary people.

Syria on screen: how have movies represented the crisis?

Taking place over a period of 24 hours, the action is almost entirely contained within a besieged apartment in Damascus. The film opens in the half-light of dawn, where the sound of birdsong intermingles with that of buzzing helicopters and scattershot gunfire. At a heavily curtained window stands an elderly man, chain-smoking and gazing out at the carnage below with watery eyes. We sense, through his weary demeanour, that this is a view to which he has become all too accustomed.

The camera then pans through a living room cluttered with books, ornaments and other domestic paraphernalia, past the heavily barricaded front door and through the rest of the apartment, introducing us to inhabitants whose names and relationships begin to reveal themselves. We see housekeeper Delhani (an excellent Juliette Navis) carrying on with her chores as explosions echo outside. Elsewhere, in a bedroom strewn with clothes, Samir (Moustapha Al Kar) and his wife Halima (Diamand Abou Abboud) tend to their young baby, and discuss their imminent escape to Beirut with a mixture of trepidation and relief.

Diamand Abou Abboud as Halima

Diamand Abou Abboud as Halima

Despite Halima’s protests, Samir leaves the apartment to meet with the contact who will facilitate their departure. After Delhani helps him with the barricades on the door, she watches him cross the courtyard – and is the only witness when he is shot by a sniper and collapses behind an abandoned car. Panic-stricken, she rushes to wake the woman she calls ‘Madam’: the owner of the apartment, Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass). When Delhani explains what she has seen, Oum Yazan decides to keep the truth from Halima in the name of the apartment’s fragile peace.

As the day unfolds, we see that Oum Yazan keeps a tight rein on her wards: along with Delhani and Halima, these include her father-in-law Abou Monzer (Mohsen Abbas), her three children and her eldest daughter’s visiting boyfriend. Oum Yazan ensures that chores are done, food is eaten and studies are undertaken, maintaining an essential sense of routine that, it’s clear, helps to keep her growing helplessness at bay – particularly important given the absence of her own husband, from whom she is desperate to hear word.

Juliette Navis as Delhani with Hiam Abbas

Juliette Navis as Delhani with Hiam Abbas

The responsibility of keeping such a huge secret, however, weighs heavily on Oum Yazan and, particularly, Delhani, and growing tensions are worsened by the arrival of two armed men who knock repeatedly on the door. Peering through the grimy keyhole, Oum Yazan refuses them entry. Soon, however, the inevitable happens, and they force their way in; everyone shutters themselves in the kitchen apart from Halima and her baby, who don’t make it there in time.

The resulting sustained beating and rape of Halima is sensitively shot, the camera remaining tightly on her agonised face throughout, but it is deeply harrowing to watch. As the action cuts between her and the shocked group cowering in the kitchen, listening helplessly behind the door, so the true vulnerability of life in this environment becomes clear. While Oum Yazan may cling to a sense of daily normality, the choices she is forced to make – essentially, to sacrifice Halima’s safety in return for that of herself and her children – is anything but routine. When the ordeal is over, her tentative questioning of whether Halima is all right echoes with tenderness and total inadequacy.

Insyriated (2017)

When a bloodied Halima, clinging to her baby, learns, inevitably, of Samir’s fate, the emotions of the day coalesce into a strength that surprises everyone. Ignoring all warnings, she races outside to collect his body; finding him still alive, she drags him back into the building, marked all the while by the red dots of sniper rifles that, thankfully, stay silent – likely because she is a woman. In a sudden rush of activity, Oum Yazan and Delhani fight to save Samir’s life, before friends arrive to whisk him away to what we can only hope is a place of relative safety. The camera, however, stays locked within the apartment, where an uneasy quiet rests until another dawn breaks and Abou Monzer once again stands, now weeping, at the window, the daily cycle set to repeat once more.

If any small criticism can be levelled at Insyriated, it’s the dramatic licence that Van Leeuw takes with this single collective of characters. Setting his film in one location, over such a tight timeframe, means that they face a relentless conveyor belt of trauma, and could easily become empty ciphers for human suffering. Any narrative improbability or twinges of melodrama are, however, overcome both by the striking performances and the visceral, immersive filmmaking.

While the cast is excellent across the board, the film belongs to Abbass and Abboud as women fighting their own personal battles with dignity and strength. As the tight-lipped Oum Yazan, Abbass is by turns redoubtable and vulnerable, her fear and weariness writ large on her face even as she refuses to give into it. Lebanese actor Abboud plays Halima as a woman of increasing awareness, for ever changed by her experiences but never a victim of them. Between them, the two actors powerfully convey the film’s central message: that the unspeakable horrors of war extend far beyond the battleground.

Insyriated (2017)

That’s an idea underscored by the masterful cinematography of Virginie Surdej. Expertly utilising the boundaries of this confined space, the camera creeps down shadowy corridors, eavesdrops on conversations and becomes an all-seeing witness to events as they unfold. Indeed, while the two films may be worlds apart, historically, geographically and in terms of scale, Insyriated is reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in its refusal to be a mere observer. Just as Nolan forces his audience into cockpit, water and sand with his legions of Allied soldiers, so Van Leeuw demands the viewer take up close-quarters residence in Oum Yazan’s apartment.

It’s a setting that proves both comforting in its depiction of the minutiae of everyday life – towels are folded, teeth are cleaned, siblings argue – and uncomfortably claustrophobic. While the apartment is a sanctuary, it is also a prison – most notably for Delhani, who is desperate to leave and be with her own distant son. And, thanks to the endless drone of helicopters and the gunfire and explosions frequently peppering the soundtrack, there is also the constant, overwhelming sense that this home could, at any moment, become a tomb from which there really can be no escape.

 ‘There is no Syrian cinema’: Syrian filmmakers since the civil war

 

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