BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian filmmaker Joud Said was planning to attend the world premiere of his latest work at the Dubai International Film Festival when the bad news came: his movie had been yanked from the program.
“I knew right away it was for political reasons,” he said.
The film wasn’t overtly political, but it was produced with help from the regime of Bashar Assad, drawing protests by opposition artists that got it thrown out. Two other Syrian offerings at the festival suffered the same fate.
Syria’s civil war has driven wedges through many parts of society, with violence that has killed more than 40,000 people exacerbating differences in class, ideology and religion.
Reflecting how deep these divisions run is the near complete split of Syria’s artists into pro- and anti-regime camps. Although Syria’s writers, musicians and filmmakers fight with sharply worded statements instead of guns and tanks, their mutual animosity bodes ill for reconciliation should Assad fall.
After 20 months of conflict, many can no longer tolerate their former friends and colleagues with opposing views.
For decades, the Syrian government has supported artists with state funds while strictly monitoring their output to make sure it remained acceptable to the regimes of Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez.
Surprisingly, this produced very little art that was straight government propaganda, said Rebecca Joubin, a scholar of Syrian culture at Davidson College. Instead, artists worked inside the system, often criticizing the regime indirectly or showing the painful effects of its policies in ways that didn’t run afoul of the censors.
All seemed to accept this as the only way to work.
This changed with the outbreak of the anti-Assad uprising in March 2011 and the country’s descent into civil war. A number of prominent artists, like singer George Wassouf and actor Duraid Lahham, have stood by the president. Many consider him an essential symbol of the nation, support his anti-Israel positions or fear that the mostly Sunni Muslim rebels will replace his secular regime with a conservative, religious one.
Some who joined the uprising paid a high price. Political cartoonist Ali Ferzat had his hands smashed by masked gunmen last year for drawings critical of Assad’s family. At least two filmmakers were killed, one while teaching activists how to make better videos. Others were detained or fled the country.
As the violence grew, opposition artists lost patience with those who didn’t publicly break with the government.
“Before the uprising, a lot of Syrian intellectuals were more understanding that there is a game they have to play to survive,” Joubin said. “But right now when so many writers, artists and directors – so many Syrians – have paid with their lives, people no longer accept this.”
This split has been especially harsh in the film community, driven in part by old grievances over who received approval and scarce government funding, Joubin said.
Early last year, a group of filmmakers launched an online petition condemning Assad’s regime and soliciting signatures in “solidarity with the Syrian people and with their dreams of justice, equality and freedom.”
Soon after, more than 100 directors, actors and musicians posted a statement echoing the government line that foreign meddling fueled the uprising and calling for “steps toward reform and change” under Assad’s leadership.
The statement also pointed out that Israeli filmmakers had signed the opposition petition – implying collaboration with the enemy, a capital offense in Syria.
The opposition considered the statement a betrayal and worried that Assad’s intelligence services would target those who didn’t sign.
“When you are in these circumstances and making ideological attacks on people and calling them traitors, in a way you are calling for their death,” said opposition filmmaker Meyar AL-Roumi, who lives in France.
Meanwhile, filmmakers on both sides continued to submit their work for competition, and eight Syrian films were scheduled to be screened at the prestigious Dubai International Film Festival, which opened Dec. 9 and runs through Dec. 16.
But when the lineup was announced, opposition filmmakers were horrified that three of the works had been made through the Syrian government’s film association by directors who had signed the pro-Assad statement. The other films were made with private, mostly European funds.
“They made their films with money from a state that is killing its people,” said AL-Roumi, whose film “Round Trip” is being shown in Dubai. “It was like they were inviting Bashar Assad to the festival.”
So he and others complained to festival organizers, who canceled the films.
A statement on the festival’s website said the films would not be shown “in light of the tragic ongoing situation that the people of Syria face every day and in accordance with the politics of the United Arab Emirates in advocating for the Syrian people and their ambitions.”
Veteran Syrian filmmaker Abdellatif Abdelhamid said he was informed that his film “The Lover” had been pulled right after receiving his official invitation and airline ticket.
A week earlier, the same film had been pulled from the Cairo International Film Festival after similar complaints.
“Their talk makes me laugh: `They work in this association and they made their films there,'” he said of the opposition. “Who are we supposed to get support from, Burkina Faso?”
Said, too, was surprised that his film “My Last Friend” was pulled, a move he called “political exclusion.”
He said he couldn’t believe he was being punished for a statement he signed a year and a half earlier when so much had changed in Syria since then.
“The situation is far beyond that now,” he said. “Now we have a civil war and they want to say this is all about some statement? It’s a stupid excuse.”
All agree that the dispute has nothing to do with the films themselves. None were overtly political, and none of the opposition filmmakers had even seen them. Instead, the fight is deeply personal.
AL-Meyar said he had worked closely with Said before the uprising but now couldn’t bear to have their films screened at the same festival.
“The films will live on and people will see them and say that my film is crap and his film is good,” AL-Roumi said. “But for human reasons, I can only deal with these people as monsters and I have to be very cautious.”
Joubin, the Davidson scholar, criticized the cancellations, saying that all films have to be funding by someone and that even those produced by the Syrian government provide insights into society.
“If every time a film is produced by the Syrian government it gets pulled, there will be a lot of very beautiful films that people are not going to see,” she said.