Under arrest for making a movie
Without breaking the law, we couldn't have put on the Syrian theater festival, says the director of the Damascus event. Meanwhile, a Syrian film festival in the United States is screening films, which most Syrians will never get to see.
"If we had to operate in accordance with the laws of theater management and musical works, we would have been incapable of producing two plays last season," said Jihad al-Zoughbi in an interview with the Al-Quds al-Arabi daily newspaper published in London. "We had to break many laws to present viewers with 24 plays in the current festival."
This is a public confession of a violation of the law from the mouth of the director of the Syrian theater festival, which opens this week in Damascus. More than describe the nature and quality of Syrian theater, this interview reveals the cumbersome nature of Syrian bureaucracy as it affects cultural life.
Zoughbi can speak openly about breaking the law because he himself is part of the establishment. He bears the lofty title of Director of Festivals, Theaters and Music at the Syrian Culture Ministry.
This issue was raised pursuant to the interviewer's question of how such a large national festival, which hosts actors and writers from many Arab countries, had received no publicity. The answer is that the person in charge of such publicity is Majad Halima, director general of Syrian radio and television, who is also head of the publicity committee of the festival's supreme committee. Despite all of his titles, Syrian television did not succeed in broadcasting even one of the festival's offerings, and a documentary film prepared for the first festival (held 13 years ago) was released only now - even that at the last minute. No malicious intentions were at work here, rather, only bureaucratic snarls.
Syrian theater has a long history, stretching back to its founding by Abu Khalil Al-Kabani, in the Ottoman Period (pre-World War I.) The Syrian collective memory also has fond recollections of the freedom enjoyed by the theater in the 1960s, before the Baath party dominated artistic creativity. In recent years, too, during Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, the theater has enjoyed a certain measure of freedom, and even the establishment of the Studio experimental theater, which has produced plays whose texts change with every performance.
Such experiments, however, are few and far between. It is difficult to imagine Syrian theater presenting works by Lebanese choreographer Walid Aouni, for example. Last month Aouni mounted an exceptional dance installation at the Cairo Festival, describing the recent war in Lebanon with sharp symbolism. Aouni, founder and director of the Cairo Opera's Modern Dance Theater, does not present his works in Lebanon, which he has not visited in over 26 years.
Theater is not the only cultural offering that the Syrian establishment has difficulty publicizing. Incidentally, at the same time the Syrian theater festival opened in its home country, a roving Syrian film festival was screening films on American university campuses. A fascinating book of articles was recently published in honor of that festival. Entitled "Insights into Syrian Cinema," the book offers both a professional analysis of the quality of the Syrian films and presents a gloomy picture of heavy censorship. Thus, for example, well-known directors like Mohammad Malas or Nabil Maleh are forced to wait years between films due to supervision restrictions and the granting of permits.
One of the most fascinating epidodes in the book describes when, in 1978, Malas and director Omar Amiralay organized a film festival in Cannes in conjunction with the influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema.
'Hand in hand' with the state
The magazine representatives chose 18 films, half of which were disqualified by the authorities. The organizers then had a flash of inspiration and instead of screening the films, French film critic Serge Daney simply related the content of the banned films for the huge audience. "It was a screening without pictures, an amazing sight," wrote Amiralay in the book.
Whereas it is easy to keep the Syrian theater "at home," and thus avoid criticism from the outside, the opposite is true for Syrian film. Very few Syrian films are cleared for viewing in Syria and most of them can be seen only outside that country. Rasha Salti, who curated the Syrian film festival and participated in the publication of the book, explains it is difficult to speak of Syrian "national film," due to the restrictions and the few films that are produced. At the same time, however, Syrian films become part of the archive of the national memory that may one day be researched.
All this analysis, however, does not affect the conceptions of those charged with supervising Syrian film, who behave just like their colleagues who supervise Syrian theater. "Intellectuals must work hand in hand with the government," declared Assad in one of his first interviews. The arts publication supervisors caught the hint, even if the Syrian intellectuals who go in and out of the courts and the jails did not.
The result is that 28 years after the Cannes festival organized by Amiralay, now 60, he was arrested last month on the Syrian-Jordanian border, after the Al Arabiya television station broadcast his documentary film "A Flood in Baath Country," which criticizes the Syrian government. That film, produced in 2005 by the French-German ARTE channel and awarded first prize for a short film at the Arab Film Festival held in Paris, was the cause of Amiralay's interrogation for 13 hours by Syrian security forces and a restraining order preventing him from leaving the country. At the end of last week, Haaretz learned that the order had been lifted.