In a week where the Syrian refugee crisis has provoked widespread debate about national security threats across Europe, a film highlighting a rare glimpse into the intimate and extraordinary lives of a family caught up in the crises' political and personal conflict has been screened at the European Parliament.
The documentary drama "A Syrian Love Story", directed by Sean McAllister, renowned for candid, frank films charting human perspectives behind political conflicts, was introduced by MEP Curzio Maltese at the screening and described it as a “masterpiece”.
This film is an intimate family portrait of the developing relationship of lovers Amer and Raghda who met in a Syrian prison cell 15 years ago. Filmed over 5 years, Sean operates as a one-man film crew to capture an incredible odyssey of political freedom and provides insights into aspects of refugee stories that, according to Sean, "the news doesn’t have time for".
When McAllister first meets their family in 2009, Raghda is back in prison leaving Amer to look after their boys alone; but as the ‘Arab Spring’ sweeps the region, the family’s fate shifts irrevocably.
Yet, as Raghda is released from prison, filmmaker Sean McAllister himself is arrested for filming and the political pressure around all activists intensifies. The family flee to Lebanon, and then to France where they are given political asylum in the sleepy town of Albi, where they now watch the revolution from afar, waiting for Assad to fall.
However, in exile, Raghda’s mental heath suffers. Viewers get a chance to see their new life in France develop but the war is now between them. In finding the freedom they fought so hard for, their relationship is beginning to fall apart.
"When the people that I want to communicate with watch A Syrian Love Story they can no longer watch the Calais crisis on TV news and just see ‘swarms or ‘floods’ of faceless figures (as Cameron like to call them) trying to flee Syria and enter Europe of the UK as if they are coming to steal something from us... They will know Amer, Raghda, Kaka and beautiful little Bob and see a family full of love, that laugh and cry and live and who have many friends who have died..." explains Sean.
Elham Shakerifar, who is producer of the film spoke to Al Arabiya News to explain how the audience response to the screenings across Europe has been "overwhelming". She adds, "we know that word of mouth has been a strong factor in the film’s visibility given how much social media chatter it has generated and the hundreds of emails we’ve received. I think that people feel compelled to write or to engage because the film is so intimate and personal that you cannot remain unmoved or indifferent to the fate of the family at its core."
"One person wrote to us saying: “This film has touched me so much. So real. It has changed my views on refugees. I had to let you know.” Another wrote: “It turned everything I thought about Syrian refugees on its head. It made me want to do something to help. And that's a pretty powerful thing.”
The film provides a glimpse into what drives activists to strive for political change in the Arab world. For Raghda and Amer, it is a journey of hope, dreams and despair: for the revolution, their homeland and each other. Amer and Raghda remain comrades but are no longer lovers. Amer is now in France with the children and Raghda in Turkey continuing to fight for her country.
The film began its journey on the festival circuit. It premiered at the Sheffield Documentary Festival and the film picked up the Jury Prize. The film has now been screened at dozens of major international festivals including Hamburg Film Festival, Zurich Film Festival, Copenhagen International Documentary Festival and International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.
Since being screened in the UK, the filmmakers have worked with dozens of community groups and charities working with refugees in the UK and supporting medical aid in Syria and also screened the film in the UK parliament in September for MPs to engage with the realities illustrated in the documentary.
The film continues to screen at festivals internationally and it's Middle East Premiere will be at the Dubai Film Festival next month.