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20th Aug 2019

Interview

Syrian 'love story' hopes to prompt EU compassion

  • Hassan's family talk to her by phone - scene from A Syrian Love Story, which won best film in Prague (Photo: http://asyrianlovestory.com)

An intimate portrayal of a Syrian family’s experience of the civil war could help to make Europeans more compassionate toward refugees, its main protagonist and its director have said.

The documentary, A Syrian Love Story, won best film at the One World festival in Prague on Monday (14 March).

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  • Hassan's son looks at picture of Syrian leader al-Assad

It tells the story of Raghda Hassan, a 40-year old Syrian woman, and Amer Daoud, a 45-year old man.

The couple met in prison in Syria in 1995 when Daoud saw Hassan’s badly beaten face through a hole in the wall between their cells.

They were freed, married and had children. But in 2010 the Syrian regime of president Bashar al-Assad jailed Hassan, an opposition activist, once again.

They later moved to Lebanon and France, where they were granted asylum. But Hassan left for Turkey to work with Syrian opposition groups, causing a rift with Daoud.

She was last in Gaziantep in south-east Turkey and in Istanbul before returning to Paris a week ago.

'Radical approach'

Hassan told EUobserver in Prague, shortly after news of the One World award, that the film was “a small thing” but that she hoped it would “improve the image” of refugees and “remove negative stereotypes” about them.

Hassan had, at one point, tried to commit suicide. She spoke on Monday with a confident smile.

She said the film, which opened in the UK last year, had prompted people in Europe to email her saying that they would quit their jobs and volunteer to be aid workers in Greece.

Sean McAllister, a British director, shot the movie in multiple locations between 2010 and 2015.

He said the One World award meant that “more people will see it”, adding that he was in “initial talks” with a studio for a fictional version that could reach a more commercial audience.

“The news [about Syria] tells only a part of the story. A documentary like this helps to characterise what the news fails to do,” he said.

He said that “there’s a strong right-wing reaction” against refugees in Europe. But he said some stories and images, such as those of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian infant who drowned in Turkey last year, have the power to “awaken the other instinct that people have, which is compassion”.

The EU recently closed its borders to Greece and Turkey in order to stem the flow of, mostly Syrian, refugees.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria has also strengthened the position of Assad and raised the prospect that the EU and US could agree to let him stay in power.

The One World jury made no mention of the developments. It said it was “impressed by the radical approach [of] the director … and the braveness of the protagonists”.

Idea of freedom fades

Hassan said news of the EU border closures made her sad.

She said: “I ask myself: ‘Isn’t it Europe that came up with the ideals of human rights?’

“Syrian people are escaping from war. When the war is over we are willing to return home. But for now this isn’t appropriate.”

She said the idea that Assad, who is accused of war crimes, could stay in office was “absurd, illogical”.

“Syrian people have shed so much blood to get rid of him and now the world is saying they might keep him in power? No. This is impossible,” she said.

Based on her work in Turkey and the quality of its camps she said it was “a good partner” for the EU in managing the refugee crisis.

But she said the EU, Turkey and the US let down the Syrian opposition by declining to act in the early stages of the anti-Assad uprising.

“If they had helped us Assad would have been overthrown and we could have elected a new government,” she said.

“In the beginning it [the uprising] was an attempt to win freedom. But over time foreign powers have turned Syria into a battlefield of their own interests.”

Assad 'is not the solution'

McAllister said he was inspired to make the film by the fabular quality of the back-story - a love affair conducted through a hole in a wall.

He said it lifted the events out of context and made the film more durable.

“My feeling was that people have had enough of the political framework in the news,” he said.

“What we’re trying to tell is a simple story of one family in their own living room who have the same kind of feelings that audience members have.”

He urged journalists to write about Syria with the intention of provoking an emotional reaction.

“It may sound cheap, but it’s necessary,” he said.

He also urged reporters to go to Syria or to get in touch with Syrian groups on the ground who are active on social media instead of relying on official sources.

He said bad reporting puts too much emphasis on jihadist group Islamic State and on the “hopelessness” of the situation.

"Mainstream media keep talking about the danger of ISIS [Islamic State]. But 95 percent of people are being killed by Assad’s barrel bombs,” he said.

“You’re playing into Assad’s hands if you say it’s hopeless. Hopelessness means that he’s the only solution.”

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