Amidst the Egyptian revolution, as international media was focusing on Tahrir square in Cairo, a tragic event in Syria went unnoticed by large parts of mainstream media: Omar Amiralay, documentary film maker and civil rights activists died on February 5 in his home in Damascus at the age of only 66. This is a farewell to him and an ode to his memory.
Amiralay was not only one of the Arab world’s best known documentary film makers, he was also an indefatigable critic of Syrian authoritarianism, and an artist whose films were internationally acclaimed, but banned in his own country due to their political content. Only one week before his death, he signed a manifesto together with prominent Syrian regime critic Michel Kilo, calling for solidarity with the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt and stressing that also the Syrian people are striving for justice and freedom. With the passing of Omar Amiralay, Syria’s intellectual opposition lost one of its foremost members.
Contrary to most Syrian film makers who are graduates from Moscow’s VGIK, Amiralay pursued his studies in Paris. Starting with theatre, he registered with the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques (IDHEC, now FEMIS) in 1967. From the beginning, he was skeptical about feature film making, and often felt he was at the wrong spot. However, 1968 marked a turning point. Amiralay was fascinated by the student revolts and joined in the demonstrations; always with his camera in hand, tirelessly documenting the historic moments. Only later did he realize that he had forgotten to put a film roll in the camera and that he had been “filming” in vain. Amiralay was fond of telling this anecdote, but he also stressed the importance of this exercise for his specific way of “seeing” through the camera. This way, the basis for the particular style that became the trade mark of his cinematographic art was laid in the streets of Paris.
After this experience of filming close to life, Omar Amiralay decided to leave film school and devote his energy entirely to documentary film making. He wanted to develop a new genre of documentary film with a personal touch, something he called “author documentary film”. Once back in Damascus, he started realizing his plans. After having celebrated the Baath party construction of the Assad Dam on the Euphrates river in his 1970 film Film-muhawalah ‘an sadd al-furat (Film-Essay on the Euphrates Dam), he took an increasingly critical stance towards the reform programs of the regime and their failed efforts at fighting poverty in rural Syria.
This is portrayed in the films Al-hayat al-yawmiyyah fi qarya suriyya (Everyday Life in a Syrian Village) which was released in 1974 in collaboration with playwright and essayist Sa’adallah Wannus, and Al-dajaj (The Chickens) from 1977. In 2003, Amiralay visited the Assad Dam again after releasing the film Tufan fi-balad al-ba’th (A Flood in Baath Country), in which he dissects the propaganda structures of the regime and their crippling effects on the country. In interviews with local dignitaries including a school master and a party official, he shows the discrepancies between official rhetoric and reality.
This unsparing critique earned him international recognition, but also forced him into exile in France, where he worked as an independent film maker and produced films for the French-German cultural TV channel Arte, among others. His oeuvre includes films on a great variety of themes, but it was his engagement with Syrian society and critique of the regime in Damascus that remained central to his work: his films as well as his activism. Amiralay was a leading figure in the so-called ‘Damascus Spring’ movement in 2001, and one of the signatories of the Declaration of the 99, a call issued by 99 Syrian intellectuals demanding the release of all political prisoners and an end to the state of emergency.
He was not an “easy” film maker. Many of his movies gave rise to heated debates, such as his portrait of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, Rajul al-hitha’ al-thahabi (The Man with the Golden Soles) from 1999. For some critics, Amiralay gave up his distance too easily in this film and let himself be manipulated by the lure of power and money.
In Hunalika ashiya‘ kathira kana yumkin an yatahadath ‘anha al-mara (There Are So Many Things Still Left to Say) from 1997, he examines the ideals of his youth through a portrait of his friend and companion Sa’adallah Wannous. The film is a frank and critical self-reflection, filmed short before the death of Wannous while he was fighting cancer in hospital. Amiralay speaks about the disappointments of their generation, the destroyed dreams of Pan-Arabism, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the many political frustrations. Lively debates followed this film, and it remains a testimony for the uncompromising stance of this film maker; a trait through which he had an important influence on Syrian film making and for which he will be greatly missed.
The death of Omar Amiralay is a big loss for independent thinking in Syria, and for the art of truly independent film making. It is significant and sad at the same time, that the death of this man, whose tireless efforts in speaking out against injustice and the lack of freedom in the Arab world, and who has been highlighted whenever it seems to fit the politics of the day, was not worth even a notice at a time when large parts of the Arab world took to the streets and reclaimed exactly those goods that his name stood for. Unfortunately, as mainstream media remains superficial in its hunger for sensations, the “Arab masses” remain without faces and histories, and the exotic wardrobe and statements of Ghaddafi still seem worth more attention than single individuals who stand up for freedom in the Arab world.