Syrian film praised abroad still unseen at home

Censors fail to permit film on topic of political prisoners


Overseas, "The Long Night" has garnered critical acclaim and awards, but at home in Syria censors remain nervous about permitting the screening of a film on the topic of political prisoners.

Director Hatem Ali's debut feature-length film is a humane and engaging drama that begins with three aging political prisoners suddenly told they are going home after having spent two decades behind bars.

"The Long Night" has been screened extensively in Africa, Europe and Asia, where it won top prize last year at the Osian's-Cinefan Film Festival in New Delhi last October.

But it has not yet been publicly shown anywhere in Syria, not even at the Damascus Film Festival late last year, when 250 films from 50 countries were screened.

The anguish of a family

The story unfolds with Karim, the oldest of the group, and his relationship with the three grown children he finds upon returning home.

Screenwriter Haitham Hakki portrays the anguish of a family that has grown used to living with a father in jail, but now has to integrate a stranger back into the fold.

Karim finds that his son, Nidal, has done well for himself by keeping his head down and his thoughts to himself.

Karim's daughter, Uruba, is now married to the son of his former best friend, who engineered Karim's imprisonment and now benefits from his close ties to the regime.

The film is a metaphor for a country in which the regime is undecided how to change things and where the very subject of political prisoners is discussed only in hushed tones.

Uruba's marriage is a metaphor for reconciliation, the screenwriter says.

"It is an invitation to reconciliation, to putting an end to these exceptional circumstances," Hakki said.

The film "does not hold back, it is bold," he said. But it "is in the interests of the country, because it reflects a certain opening, a margin of freedom."

Only Karim's youngest son, Kifah, is true to his father's ideals, and symbolizes a new generation that is idealistic, bold and ready to speak out.

It is an invitation to reconciliation, to putting an end to these exceptional circumstances

Screenwriter Haitham Hakki

"Damascus Spring"

The coming to power in Syria a decade ago of President Bashar al-Assad following the death of his father, strongman Hafez al-Assad, ushered in a brief period of freedom dubbed the "Damascus Spring."

But a crackdown and the arrest of 10 pro-democracy activists in the summer of 2001 brought that period to an end.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said that Syria's human rights record "remains very poor," and has called on the Damascus government to release political prisoners and ease media censorship.

Director Ali said he was given permission to shoot the film.

"Of course we got authorisation for the screenplay, since in Syria you can't film in secret," he said.

But Ali also said had no idea whether "The Long Night" will ever be granted a license so it can be screened in public.

Hakki was more upbeat about its prospects.

"The film is waiting to be shown," he said. "It did not displease the censorship commission, and even pleased some people there."

Hakki said that lower-ranking censorship officials may have been reluctant to authorise the film's screening, because taking a wrong decision could have landed them in hot water.

"The subject is sensitive. It is being touched upon for the first time, and consequently authorization must come from the top," Hakki said. "I am optimistic the problem will be solved."

Of course we got authorisation for the screenplay, since in Syria you can't film in secret

Hatem Ali