Sean McAllister’s A Syrian Love Story comes to cinemas around the UK this week. It is a documentary daringly shot by one individual in the most dangerous of climates, with a humanising message that does not hold back from showing the gritty truths of war, asylum-seeking and the struggle for stability in love. It is in this sense a story of real contemporary relevance that swims against the tide of too-often pornographic media representations.
Fortuitously broadcast at a time of increased public interest in the refugee crises, McAllister’s film acquires all the more relevance as an odyssey that charts the involvement of one family in the rise of populist revolution in Syria, forced to flee and seek shelter in France.
Shot over five years by a lone film-maker, the documentary follows Amer, Raghda and their three children. Having fallen in love fifteen-years previously whilst in a Syrian prison, Raghda is back in prison when the film begins, and we watch Amer struggling to hold together his family in the face of overwhelming incertitude. Incarcerated for writing a politically-subversive book, Raghda’s eventual release marks only the beginning of much hardship. When our film-maker, Sean McAllister, is himself imprisoned by the regime, his video footage requires the family to flee to neighbouring Lebanon where the post-traumatic stress of imprisonment and a barrier of national hostility threatens to fracture the delicate relationship between Amer and Raghda.
After being granted asylum by France, the family move away from this war-torn environment, but now face what the film’s title does not prepare us for: the dissolution of a love which is unable to adapt to the changed situation in which the parents find themselves. At the moment when all should be getting better, McAllister offers up a reality of anger, revenge, divorce and death.
The film packs much of its punch through the focus on the family’s children, in particularly on the two youngest – Bob and Kaka. From 2009 to 2015, we watch Bob grow from toddler to young child, and ultimately take on a wholly French identity that, in both a pitiful but hopeful way, overwrites his traumatic past.
Through Kaka, who begins the film as a young teenager, we experience the passion of a desperate child, the nostalgia of a young refugee, the need for former friends, and the helpless silence of a son witness to the violent fragmentation of his parents’ marriage.
The film, which struggles to find an ending to this unresolved situation, ends with a certain sense of optimism: Raghda has returned to Eastern Turkey as political and cultural advisor to the oppositional government; Amer and the rest of the family make lives for themselves in the south of France. But in the final analysis it is with a great amount of irony that this is A Syrian Love Story, and although the documentary plays with the generic expectations of comic endings, the truth – from which this film never shies – can not substantiate such a honey-sweetened impossibility.