Syrian film scoops top awards despite danger

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A Syrian film that has scooped a string of prestigious awards in recent months barely made it to screens because of the dangers the crew faced in the war-ravaged country, its director told AFP.

Filmmaker Basil al-Khatib’s “Mariam” won prizes at festivals in Cairo on October 13, at Oran in Algeria in September and at the Moroccan city of Dakhla in February.

It tells the story of three women, each named Mariam, who lived through three different conflicts in Syria’s recent history, but who overcome the horrors of war through love.

But the Palestinian-Syrian director said the film’s crew had to contend with the risks of Syria’s bloody civil war as they struggled to finish the production.

“Some of the scenes were shot in very dangerous sites, with battles raging nearby,” said Khatib.

“We’d go out to shoot and didn’t know whether we’d come back home alive that evening,” he added.

Despite this, he wanted to keep the film focused on how humanity can shine through in conflict. Mariam opens with a line of poetry by Khatib’s father: “We have lost everything, but we still have love.”

The words ring true in a country where in 31 months more than 115,000 people have been killed and millions more have been displaced in a savage war.

In the film, “love, peace and forgiveness are victorious, as we overcome the difficulties we are living,” Khatib said.

One of the characters echoes this, saying: “Just as war brings out the worst in people, it also brings out the most beautiful in others”.

Khatib said the film’s name is also a nod to the Virgin Mary, who in religious texts teaches love and kindness.

Mariam, he said, “sums up the situation in Syria, its suffering and the wounds and pain women are made to bear”.

The film shows the bitterness of war and the impact it has on the three women, who nonetheless “do not lose their capacity to love and make sacrifices.

“It celebrates Syrian women,” the director said.

The story of the first Mariam is set in 1918, just as World War I drew to a close.

“That era was a key to our history. The region’s future was unclear at the time as the Ottoman empire came to an end and the Allied powers came in,” said Khatib.

The film’s second part explores the impact of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, “which created a great divide” in the region, said Khatib.

It looks at a widow who refuses to leave her home in Quneitra, on the border with the Golan heights, which has been under Israeli occupation since the war.

“This war is not aimed at destroying our houses, but our very souls,” says the second Mariam.

The film’s final part returns to Syria’s turbulent present, where the third Mariam is faced with the worsening conflict at home.

After her father abandons his own mother in a shelter, the young Mariam tells him: “When a son gives up on his mother... he gives up on his memory, his country and all that is noble in him.”

Khatib believes that it is this focus on the “human element” in Syria’s conflict that has made the film a hit with audiences and juries at festivals.

As well as Mariam’s clutch of awards and successful runs at film festivals, it is also currently being screened in Alexandria.

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