Muhammad Malas’ al-Layl and Ryad Chaia’s al-Lajat
History is back in fashion in Syria. The last few years have seen a flurry of Syrian films and TV series treating historical epochs from Zenobia’s Palmyra to the French occupation (1920-1946). The latter has been especially well represented in this “return to history” (al-‘awda ila al-tarikh). In particular, two films stand out: Muhammad Malas’ al-Layl (The Night) and Ryad Chaia’s al-Lejat (referring to both the name of the region of Suwayda in which the film takes place and the black volcanic rock common to the region). Previously screened in Europe, both have appeared recently in US film festivals.
Committed to expanding the Syrian film horizon by injecting it with a new political consciousness, Muhammad Malas is a director who does not shy away from controversy. The trick, Malas says, is to situate one’s commentary on the contemporary period in a less threatening historical context. With the long-awaited Syrian release of al-Layl, screened this year for the first time after a five-year delay, Syrian audiences finally have the opportunity to view the film.
There seem to be two possible explanations for the delay. First, the funding and distribution of the film have been controversial. Although the film was jointly funded by the Syrian Public Film Organization and the French company Maram, the latter distributed the film to ARTY (the French/German cable channel) without obtaining the permission of its Syrian partners or sharing the proceeds. While Malas was not involved in these European negotiations, he nevertheless found himself embroiled in controversy in Syria, ultimately facing charges before the Military Economic Court. The state and Malas have reached a settlement, the terms of which remain secret.
The second explanation is the content of the film itself. If Ahlam al-Madina (Dreams of the City, 1984) established Malas’ reputation as a social critic, this time he treads even closer to the limits of permitted critique. While al-Layl’s representation of British, French and Zionist roles in the loss of Palestine accords with Syrian nationalist interpretations, Malas’ film adds an internal dimension to the discussion. In fact, his portrayal of corrupt political leadership and abusive family structures has led many to suggest that it was the government censors who delayed the Syrian release of the film and that only a director of Malas’ stature could have succeeded in finagling its release. By weaving together threads of official and opposition discourses, Malas has created a film that unsettles, but does not completely break with, the conventions of Syrian nationalist historiography.
Set in Qunaytra, al-Layl is the story of a boy’s mourning for his father (Alallah) and his attempt to bring his father back to life by narrating his death. While the memories are Malas’ (first explored in his novel Annonces sur une ville qui vivait avant laguerre), his autobiographical reminiscences are recognizable as national allegory. The nightmarish quality of the film’s opening scenes, with Alallah’s mother Wisal wandering through the ruins of the family’s Qunaytra home, reflects more than one family’s horror: The Israeli destruction of the city occupies an important place in imaginations of Syrian national identity.
We first meet Alallah who hails from Hama (that is, the “other” destroyed city, whose 1982 destruction at the hands of the Syrian government no Syrian filmmaker could address directly) on his way back from Palestine after the failure of the 1936 revolt. Destitute and starving, he is aided by his future wife’s family. Malas levels his most stinging critique of abusive family relations by focusing on this family: The father is a repugnant character, all but imprisoning his wife and children in the kitchen of the family’s small shop, slapping them, insulting them, marrying his daughter off to the unknown Alallah.
Thus the struggle over Palestine brings Alallah and his wife together. Like the deceased father, Palestine is a present absence that drives the film’s plot. Qunaytra is not just any destroyed city. It is situated on the Golan Heights and so constitutes a threshold, connecting Syria to the lost Arab territory. Al-Layl is filled with liminal imagery — camera shots of and through windows, doors and half-walls — which not only gestures toward the close but unattainable Palestine, but also hints at the traditional social roles from which the characters cannot escape.
The happiness of the new family ends with the victory of British and Free French forces during World War II. Alallah’s brother-in-law steals a gold piece he finds in a grain sack ripped open by the Allied bombardment. Falsely accused of theft by his father-in-law, Alallah is sent to jail. What is cinematographically striking about the war scene — like the film’s other representations of military force — is that Malas does not focus his lens on the immediate instrument of violence. That violence exists, as it were, in the passive voice: a shop is bombed, but we do not see the bombers; a horseman is shot, but we do not see the shooter; Qunaytra is destroyed, but we do not see the destroyers. This is symptomatic of contemporary Syrian political discourse in which state violence cannot be directly addressed. Although Alallah is released from prison when Syria achieves its independence in 1946, he quickly finds himself back in jail as a political subversive after shouting useless protests against the new nationalist government. His voice drowned out by the obstinacy of the radio, his body powerless against the stone wall that protects the voice of the state, his shouts only get him into trouble.
Meanwhile, the corrupt nationalist leaders who run the newly independent state stab each other in the back and extort their people. When the viewer first meets two characters bearing a historical resemblance to Husni Za‘im and Sami Hinnawi, the generals are clad only in their underwear, their pot bellies hanging out. Like the proverbial emperor, they have no clothes. By the time Alallah is again released from prison, spiritually broken by a lifetime of victimization and defeat, all he has left to do is die.
Al-Lajat relates the story of a Druze girl who, after her husband goes to work in the city, falls in love and runs off with a new village teacher. The girl is ultimately returned to her family and killed. Given widespread perceptions of the Druze as a violent insular group, Syrian viewers sense the plot’s course from the opening funeral scene. Indeed, the same year the film was released (1995), Syrian newspapers were abuzz with reports of a lovestruck Druze girl who fled to Damascus to marry a Sunni Muslim, only to be returned to her Suwayda home and killed. Al-Lajat does not provoke suspense. Rather, it advances a new focus on the visual in Syrian film and a critique of Druze communal practices.
Ryad Chaia’s expressed intention in making the film was to emphasize the visual, since in his conception film is an essentially visual medium. The de-emphasis of dialogue, however, comes at a price: while the film’s scenes are beautifully shot, the connections between them are often unclear. Drifting, the viewer sometimes feels like a lost tourist, impressed with the scenery but not really sure where s/he is going. The tourist metaphor is especially appropriate for this film, as the director is none too subtle in taking the viewer on a tour of this “backward” Druze region: from the wedding mansaf scene to the houses, Chaia portrays a “timeless” Druze community, thereby confirming the prejudices of his urban Syrian audiences. While set in a critical framework — Chaia, himself Druze, is not happy about the state of his community — his stereotypical representation is a bit too pleasurable. It is important to note that this image of the Druze community accords with the Syrian nationalist line, in which the Druze are a traditional minority group under the auspices of a universalist state.
If overt representation of violence in al-Layl is minimized, in al-Lajat is it completely effaced. Violence is found instead in the distant view of a funeral, the reaching for a rock, the bubbling of baking bread. Most of all it is in the tortured emotional states of the characters, for whom the presence of pain stands in contrast to empty landscapes and houses.
The film’s muted colors hint at the drab future that awaits the characters. There is no earthly salvation; there is only the moon and the sky, the hope for divine intervention that never comes. The characters take refuge in heaven-directed pleas just as in al-Layl the characters gaze at photographs snapped at moments of hope in 1936 and 1948. This escapism constitutes a target for both directors who bemoan the inability of their characters to challenge the social constraints that imprison them. Al-Lajat concludes with uniformed troops seizing the girl and delivering her to her murderous family, but strikingly, it is not clear whether these troops are French or Syrian. Not only are their uniforms unrecognizable, but the film opens by identifying the year as sometime in the 1940s which, given that Syria attained independence in 1946, blurs the distinction between the colonial and national state. Maybe they are French troops, maybe they are Syrian, but in the end it does not matter. They are all complicit in a backward social structure.
The death of both films’ protagonists offers no redemption, ushers in no change, but only reaffirms the powerlessness of the individual. The power and autonomy of the individual filmmaker, however, remain open questions. Both directors have “returned to history,” or more precisely, taken refuge in history so as to gain a safer ground from which to mount a social and political critique. But history offers no immunity. While both films push the boundaries of Syrian film, both also participate in official discourses that render their criticisms ambiguous. For al-Layl, by far the more politically adventurous of the two, this ambiguity allows the film to meet the minimal requirement for participation in the Syrian cultural scene.