BEIRUT: “Daaesh.” Yassin Haj Saleh pauses as if the word, the Arabic acronym for ISIS, were a question in need of an answer.
“It’s a fitting name,” he answers himself, “for a monster.”
Haj Saleh is sitting in Douma, in the eastern Ghouta, some 10 kilometers from central Damascus. Several weeks later, he and Syrian filmmaker Ziad Homsi have made the journey from Douma to Raqqa.
“Daaesh,” Haj Saleh says, three months and several hundred kilometers beyond Raqqa, is “ ... the cancerous growth of our revolution.”
These remarks are recorded in “Our Terrible Country,” a documentary co-directed by Homsi and his countryman Mohammed Ali Atassi. The film had its world premiere this summer at the FIDMarseille International Film Festival, where it took the Competition Grand Prize.
This emotionally wrenching work will have its Beirut debut Tuesday evening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.
Haj Saleh is a Syrian intellectual and veteran dissident. He was first detained by the regime of Hafez Assad in 1980, at the age of 20, and wasn’t released until 1996. He is said to have been among the few intellectuals to have been involved in his country’s revolution since it began in 2011.
Some 28 years younger than Haj Saleh, the 20-something Homsi has also been involved in the Syrian revolution since it began life as a peaceful protest movement. The opening moments of “Country” – comprised of a report on a successful Free Syrian Army operation against a state-held position – features an interview with Homsi, then an FSA fighter.
By mid-2013, when the principal shooting of “Country” begins, Homsi has abandoned his Kalashnikov in favor of a camera.
“Country” is a road movie charting the final arduous legs of Haj Saleh’s journey from rooted activist intellectual to deracinated political refugee. As it opens, he has already fled Damascus with his wife to join several other secular dissidents in Douma, which had been wrested from regime forces.
Douma isn’t safe, so he decides to travel north to his home town of Raqqa. By this point Homsi, who’s been asked to profile the intellectual on film, decides to tag along.
During the 19-day passage to Raqqa, they learn that the town is now under the control of Daaesh, which has kidnapped Haj Saleh’s brother Firas and cousin Ahmad.
After they arrive in Raqqa, and the house of Haj Saleh’s sister, Atassi joins the pair and the film becomes more obviously a study of Homsi and Haj Saleh’s relationship.
Like Atassi’s earlier work – the shorts “Ibn al Am” (2001) and “Ibn al-Am Online” (2012), about Syrian dissident Riyad al-Turk, and his feature-length “Waiting for Abu Zayd” (2010), about Egyptian thinker Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd – “Country” offers a portrait of an intellectual in the midst of political crisis.
It is somewhat more complex than these earlier efforts though, insofar as there are two filmmakers engaging with the central figure rather than Atassi alone. The film also bristles with urgency – a quality less evident in his first two works but obvious in “Ibn al-Am Online.”
Yet the sentiments driving all Atassi’s films are comparable. Like them, “Country” is less interested in documenting the ideas of the public intellectual – as he says: “Anyone can find your thoughts in your books.” – than he is in pushing the intellectual’s humanity into sharp relief.
Grim circumstance facilitates Atassi’s goal.
The journey to Raqqa is necessary but the road is deemed too dangerous for Haj Saleh’s wife, Samira Khalil, who remains in Douma. Though safer for the dissidents than regime-held territory, it’s evident that local residents haven’t welcomed Khalil and her like-minded friends and colleagues, like human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh, with open arms.
Showing Khalil and Zeitouneh pitching in on volunteer street-cleaning detail in Douma, Homsi asks an Islamist gentleman whether he’s told the Damascene women to wear hijab.
“That’s what people do in Douma,” the man replies. “They should be like us.”
“Do you like these people?” Homsi asks.
“Only God grants liking and disliking,” he replies.
“But they’re helping you,” Homsi persists. “Do you like them?”
“God protect our honor,” the man says.
These words, and the uncertainty surrounding the security of Samira Khalil and Razan Zeitouneh, reverberate through the rest of the film.
“We used to think we have one enemy,” Haj Saleh says, “the Nizam [state]. Now we have 1,000, not including the one inside us.”
“Our Terrible Country” screens at
Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Tuesday at 8:15 p.m.
Link on the Daily Star: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Arts-and-Ent/Culture