Monday, January 16, 2017

A Syrian Love Story

Sean McAllister
Elhum Shakerifar
Comrades and lovers Amer and Raghda met in a Syrian prison cell 15 years ago. When McAllister first meets their family in 2009, Raghda is back in prison leaving Amer to look after their 4 boys alone; but as the ‘Arab Spring’ sweeps the region, the family’s fate shifts irrevocably. Filmed over 5 years, the film charts their incredible odyssey to political freedom. For Raghda and Amer, it is a journey of hope, dreams and despair: for the revolution, their homeland and each other. 

Read an interview with director Sean McAllister and producer Elhum Shakerifar

1. Could you start by telling us a little about yourself? Your growing years, education and professional trajectory, perhaps?
Sean McAllister
: I grew up in a working class town called Hull which is in the north of England. I'm the only boy in a catholic family of nine. I have six older sisters.
I went to a state school. I left without formal qualifications.. I would say I definitely enjoyed a happy childhood. I was pretty much left to my own devices. My childhood friends are all still close friends today, some of whom I have made films with. Because I left school with no formal qualifications I spent years in and out of dead-end jobs working occasionally in factories. Through a local community Center I found a camera and started to make documentaries about the characters I had met through working in factories. I applied for a place at the National Film and Television School.
Elham Shakerifar: I grew up between London and Paris, and have always been fascinated by the Middle East given my Persian background. I studied Persian literature at university and later visual anthropology. Storytelling has always been a core interest.

2. What inspired A Syrian Love Story?
Sean McAllister
: Making films in the Arab world for twenty years I became fascinated with Syria after discovering Damascus.
Elham Shakerifar: When I first met Sean, he had just met Amer. The intimacy and openness in the footage he showed me was amazing, and with some knowledge of the Assad regime, it felt undeniably important to follow and keep filming. 

A still from the film

3. What drew you to Syria? What kind of preparation went into dealing with something so nuanced and painful?
Sean McAllister
: I went to Syria as the tourist industry was getting its act together. It wasn't a war torn country then,  it was in fact beautiful and rich in history. 
Elham Shakerifar: Sean’s films are character led but most importantly, he works from a gut instinct, and this is something that I completely respect and relate to. Documentary film is nuanced and painful when it is at its most honest, and I think the beauty of the craft is in being prepared to go through that process with honesty and integrity, even if that means showing your own vulnerabilities along the way and allowing the necessary time to work out what is working and what isn't, and why. 

4. What was your experience filming like? Do you have any particular anecdotes to share?
Sean McAllister: I was operating on a tourist visa so it was low key filming with small equipment. It was a pleasure to film Amer and his family as they were SO welcoming. I remember a park where on a night everyone gathered and drank and talked , this contrasted with the idea of a certain type of regime. Of course then I remember the brutality of prison, the screams of men and the horror. 
Elham Shakerifar: Sean operates as a one man band during production. When he’s filming, I typically get calls, updates and rushes daily, and there is a lot of discussion about the situation, the developments, the context. During this time, my role as a producer is very much that of a sounding board – thinking through ideas and the experience or process of filming. 

5. What have your biggest challenges been? How have you dealt with them? 
Sean McAllister: Surviving, not getting arrested, the delicacy of filming a disintegrating relationship against a backdrop on unrest. Keeping my wits about me and staying low key. You can get paranoid after a while as you sometimes are unsure about who to trust. 
Elham Shakerifar: There have been many challenges especially given the timescale of 6 years. The situation in Syria was tense, the difficulty of filming a disintegrating relationship was intense, of course Sean’s arrest was terrible and one we were very keen to reference in the film to not shy away from that complexity. The edit was very long, and again intense! Equally challenging was to see how from 2009 when we began making the film, till 2015 when we finished it, Syria hasn't been a priority and we struggled till much later in the filming process to get any support to make it.

A Still from the Film
5. As a filmmaker, you are a storyteller who takes fact out into the world through an observer's lens. When you deal with difficult subjects, how do you retain your objectivity? 
Sean McAllister:  I'm a participant in my films. I believe in subjectivity and I film in the first person to illustrate that I'm much more than an observer. I'm also changing the situation at times, changing events. 
Elham Shakerifar: I don’t know whether objectivity is possible or even something to aspire to, but I think integrity is key. Knowing where you stand and why you’re making a film is much more important than being objective, because it will set the tone and let a viewer understand where you’re coming from and why, and enable them to follow their own personal journey through the film.

6. You've been the voice of those that are otherwise not heard, considering how information on the situation in Syria is relegated only to a statistic. How does that feel? 
Sean McAllister: The film has enabled the voice through Amer and Raghda and how the big political change is now seen. The voices are theirs. It feels good that their story represents the story of a nation. 
Elham Shakerifar: It’s a delicate balance to represent someone’s life in any complexity and so that Amer and Raghda are proud of the film is so important and validating. It is important that they have been able to use the film as a platform to speak about Syria, about their realities as refugees today. It has also been amazing to see the level of response to the film – hundreds of people have written to us to tell us how moved they have been by this family, underlining how relatable it is, how it has turned their preconceptions on their head – once an audience has ‘met’ a child like Bob and see him grow up over 5 years, it would be very hard to think of refugee children like him as faceless statistics. I still get asked on a weekly basis how he is, how they all are - it's always very moving when this happens.

7. What goes into making your creative process what it is? How did you put the documentary together?
Sean McAllister: In practical terms it means embedding myself in the place, the culture, finding that voice and allowing that to tell the story. Building trust is so important to my methodology. 
Elham Shakerifar: Storytelling in verité documentary isn’t a straightforward process – it requires a level of honesty with yourself, as well as with everyone involved in the process that can be disarming, difficult. And whether in the production or in the edit, taking the time to find or understand something is more important than imposing your reality on it. 

Read more about “A Syrian Love Story” here.