Two political activists forced to flee Syria in the midst of the Arab Spring struggle to reconcile their lives as lovers, parents, refugees and revolutionaries in the film “A Syrian Love Story”, which follows one family’s five-year fight for freedom.
The documentary, which premiered at the Sheffield Doc Fest, explores the lives of Amer and Ragda - who met and fell in love 20 years ago in a Syrian prison - and their four sons as they escape to Lebanon before being granted asylum in France.
The film opens in 2009 with husband and father Amer raising their sons alone as Ragda has been imprisoned for publicly criticizing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Yet the anti-government protests at the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 - which has killed more than 200,000 people and uprooted some four million to date - lead to the release of political prisoners, including Ragda, reuniting the family.
Their joy is short-lived when filmmaker Sean McAllister is arrested and interrogated and some footage of the family is confiscated, leaving them no choice but to flee Syria overnight.
“I said to her: ‘Do you blame me? If it wasn’t for me, you’d all still be together. It might not be perfect, it could be very dangerous, but you’d still be together in Syria,” McAllister told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday.
“And she said, ‘No, the only people we blame for any of this, is the regime.’ And that’s how they see it,” the filmmaker said at the annual festival.
Struggle to adapt
Having fled to neighboring Lebanon, the family struggles to adapt to their new life, particularly Ragda, who is torn between her identity as a revolutionary and her role as a mother and returns to Syria for a brief spell.
She goes back to the family in Lebanon just as they are granted political asylum in the sleepy French town of Albi, where they wait in hope for Assad to fall.
Amer and Ragda’s fraught relationship continues to deteriorate as Syria falls further into chaos. Far away from home and removed from the conflict, the strife in Syria becomes secondary to the battle to save their relationship.
“She crushed everything in our life. For me and the children, I think this is the end,” Amer tells McAllister. “I’m afraid of her... and I love her.”
Towards the end of the film, Amer leaves the family house for a while to live with a woman referred to as his girlfriend, and threatens to kill Ragda in a fit of rage when he returns.
Alone and disenchanted at having fled Syria in its darkest hour, and able only to watch online as the violence escalates, Ragda attempts to kill herself by cutting her arms. “I feel I’m a loser... everything is bad,” she says afterwards.
“A Syrian Love Story” concludes with Amer watering plants in the family’s house in France, while Ragda is shown living in Turkey - 20 miles from the Syrian border - where she has taken up a position as a political adviser for an opposition party.
Ragda tells McAllister that she wants to return to her family once she has made peace with herself. Amer says he hopes his wife is happy.
“The tragedy, I feel, is at the end, when they split, that they both still love each other,” McAllister said.