The activist and film-maker would approve of holding the documentary film festival in 12 countries outside Syria, in protest
This week marks the first anniversary of the uprising in Syria, and would have seen the fifth year of Syria’s leading documentary festival, Dox Box. All over the Arab world, film-makers have been documenting their uprisings and paying for it with their freedom and lives. So this year, the Dox Box organisers decided to make a statement against the Assad regime and not hold the festival in Syria; instead, they have planned a Dox Box Global Day to be held in 12 countries, from Sudan to the UK to Kosovo, as a gesture of continued support for these film-makers amid fears that media interest in the conflict is waning. In the UK, Dox Box Global Day will form the opening night of the Reel Syria 2012 festival in London and Edinburgh, itself a tribute to the resilience of Syria’s artists.
If you attend Dox Box Global Day, you may well see the work of Syria’s greatest documentarian, the late Omar Amiralay, for the first time. Amiralay fell hard for the Ba’ath movement’s socialist ideals, and came away bruised from the experience. He made his first documentary in 1974, Film Essay on the Euphrates Dam; it celebrated the construction of the dam and the immense workforce behind it. Thirty years later, the collapse of the dam and the revelation of an official report predicting its fate inspired Amiralay to make A Flood in Ba’ath Country (2003). Amiralay’s bitterness about the Ba’athist spirit of the former film defines the latter – he admitted that he regretted making the first film, which for obvious reasons was embraced by the regime, while the latter was banned.
Amiralay’s passionate opposition to the Ba’ath party meant that he had to live in exile, but he continued to make politically critical films about Syria. A Plate of Sardines (1997), about the destruction of Quneitra in the occupied Golan Heights, and There Are So Many Things Still to Say … (1997), a portrait of journalist, playwright and intellectual Saadallah Wannous.
None of Amiralay’s films have ever been screened publicly in Syria, but his popularity at international film festivals has meant that Arab documentaries enjoyed greater status. In response to the Syrian National Film Organisation, which banned or censored political films, Amiralay set up the Arab Institute of Film (AIF), which organised workshops and provided support for young documentary makers.
AIF left Damascus and moved to Beirut after government harassment (and was renamed Screen Institute Beirut). Subsequently, Amiralay became one of the main advisors and supporters of Dox Box, founded in 2008. Amiralay died in February 2011, a few weeks before the uprisings began. He had publicly stated his support for the protests in Egypt, and signed the Statement of 99, urging the government to release political prisoners and lift the state of emergency. It’s safe to say that without him, our understanding of Syria and its politics would be very different. Dox Box Global Day is a fitting memorial.
• Film Essay on the Euphrates Dam and A Flood in Ba’ath Country by Omar Amiralay screen as part of Dox Box Global Day at the Frontline Club, London, on 15 March. Reel Syria takes place in London & Edinburgh, from 15-18 March
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