There must be a dozen stories about what happened in 1988 when Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad watched Stars in Broad Daylight in a private screening at the presidential palace in Damascus. Some say he was initially amused by the farcical plot about a double wedding that goes disastrously wrong when one bride runs off with a bus driver and the other simply refuses to proceed. Others say he was angered from the start by a film in which the actor playing the family despot who is trying to marry off his brother and his sister bore a striking resemblance to himself.
Whatever happened, the film, which had just made a successful debut at Cannes, was never shown publicly in Syria. It will be screening, however, at the TIFF Cinematheque as part of a series entitled Syrian Self-Portraits: Chronicles of Tyranny, Chronicles of War.
Stars in Broad Daylight begins with the comic collapse of the wedding, but as it follows the fate of the sister, who is yearning to choose her own mate, and the brother, a simpleton rendered deaf by a blow from his father, it becomes an increasingly dark indictment of family violence. The Assad regime knew a metaphor when it saw one.
"It was a shock to officials. They were in a panic," recalls Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed in a phone interview from Paris, where he has lived in exile since involving himself in protests during the Arab Spring in 2011. "They had a feeling all the humour and irony and metaphor was talking about Syrian authorities."
It took 14 years for Mohammed to get permission to make another feature in Syria. The result – Sacrifices or The Box of Life, also included in the TIFF series – involved another tyrannical patriarch, but the treatment Mohammed provided to the film committees that vetted every project was so visual and the final film itself so imagistic they couldn't figure out what it was about.
"I don't like revenge," he remarks "but somehow I was revenged for my first film. I'm not a slave; I don't follow orders. I follow my gut."
In contrast to the codified official censorship of Iran, this system of low-level film committees with which the secret police could easily interfere meant Syria produced far less cinema. Today, however, projects created by exiles or through clandestine filming can be blunt about the state of the country. The TIFF series includes several documentaries that directly depict the current civil war. Talal Derki's Return to Homs (2013) follows the insurgents in that city for three years as they are transformed from idealists to soldiers. For Haunted, Liwaa Yazji interviewed friends, family and the internal refugees arriving in Damascus, asking them how one makes the decision to stay or to flee.
And finally, the series also includes Mohammed's unusual documentary collaboration with the Kurdish activist Wiam Simav Bedirxan. She was trapped in besieged Homs when she asked him in a Facebook post what he would be filming if he were still in Syria. When he replied he would be filming what was going on in front of him in the streets, she began sending him her own footage, to which he added other clandestine videos of the war that Syrians had posted online. The 2014 project, Silvered Water, Syrian Self-Portrait, has been widely screened internationally, exposing audiences to direct evidence of the horrors that ordinary Syrians are experiencing every day.
Still, Mohammed believes that the film remains stuffed with metaphor.
"Filming dead bodies was not their choice. You film your loved one, your illusion is that you keep them alive a few moments longer. It is a classic dramaturgy of justice and injustice. It is Antigone; the body is thrown in the street and you don't have the right to bury it." He argues the work has potentially remade Syrian film: "Is it YouTube? Is it low quality? No, it is a moment when a human exposed history, voted with an image, filmed freedom. Maybe a thousand pieces together is the new cinema of the auteur."
Syrian Self-Portraits: Chronicles of Tyranny, Chronicles of War runs Aug. 26 to Sept. 4 at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox (tiff.net).