BEIRUT, Lebanon — In the early scenes of the Syrian documentary “Our Terrible Country,” the leftist writerYassin al-Haj Saleh explores the ruins of a rebellious Damascus suburb, his clean-shaven face, Lenin-style cap and pristine clothes marking him as a recent arrival from the mostly intact government-controlled downtown.
The camera and the man behind it, a young photographer and sometime insurgent calling himself Ziad al-Homsi, approach Mr. Saleh with reverence. It is mid-2013, two years into Syria’s revolt. Hopes for easy victory over President Bashar al-Assad are long gone, yet Mr. Saleh still has far more skin in the game than his peers, the old-school, prewar dissidents who mainly squabble in exile as younger Syrians like Mr. Homsi run the risks.
At 53, Mr. Saleh, who spent 16 years of his youth in prison, suffering torture, has just moved with his wife, Samira Khalil, to the working-class suburb, Douma. Staying in Syria, alongside those enduring daily government bombardments, is the “obvious” choice, he said.
But almost immediately, scenes unfold that complicate his heroic stance, and foreshadow the gaps between rich and poor, between secular and pious Syrians, that have helped to doom the uprising to disunity. The film, which is being shown on Saturday at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens and on Feb. 13 at Artists Space in Manhattan confronts those divides with painful honesty and illuminates the personal calamities that ensued for those who staked their lives on revolt. It is one of several documentary films made by Syrians about their country’s civil war that have made the film festival circuit in the past several years.
The film shows Mr. Saleh, newly in Douma, organizing a street cleaning day and coming across somewhat like a patronizing gentrifier. He and his wife sweep, visibly irritated with the locals who just smoke and stare. A bearded resident, speaking to the camera, said he asked Ms. Khalil to cover her hair like most women in the religiously conservative area, “so that they look like they come from here.”
“Do you like them?” Mr. Homsi asks, referring to the newcomers.
“God grants love,” the man answers. “God protect them, that’s all.”
The camera unflinchingly — indeed, mercilessly — keeps rolling through such awkward moments in long, sometimes excruciating, takes. Again and again the film grapples with the failure of intellectuals, and even of ideas themselves, to guide the uprising. The film’s creator, Mohammad Ali Atassi, a Sorbonne graduate, counts himself among those who failed, but sees his film and Mr. Saleh’s writings as gestures of hope and perseverance.
Previous films by Mr. Atassi, now based in Beirut, include “Ibn al Am” (2001), about the Syrian dissident Riad al-Turk, and “Waiting for Abu Zaid” (2010), about a liberal Islamic theologian. “Our Terrible Country” pairs honesty with empathy, zooming in ever closer and more intimately on Mr. Saleh, a well-known dissident writer who tried to build bridges between his generation of activists and the younger Syrians who later rebelled. It turns him from a lofty emblem into a fallible human being — vulnerable, ambiguous and, perhaps, easier to identify with.
This is accomplished through a shift in perspective, as Mr. Homsi, 24, evolves from cameraman to character and co-director. He and Mr. Saleh embark on a road trip that binds them in friendship, forces each to confront his generation’s struggle to turn idealism into results and ultimately leaves both marooned in Turkey.
Mr. Saleh decides to travel to his hometown, Raqqa, in northern Syria, the only provincial capital ruled by insurgents, and where foreign Islamist extremists are asserting control. The roundabout journey to avoid government checkpoints takes 19 days, instead of one. Close-ups show Mr. Saleh panting, a purple towel on his head, under a tarp in the blazing sun, waiting for the next lift.
By the time they reach Raqqa, the extremist Islamic State group has consolidated power and abducted Mr. Saleh’s brother Firas, missing to this day.
“The journey no longer made sense,” Mr. Saleh intones in a voice-over, reading from an essay he wrote later. “However, I had no choice but to continue.”
The film suggests Syria’s revolt is itself on a parallel journey: diverted by extremists in the wrong direction, yet unable, or unwilling, to turn back.
In Raqqa, Mr. Saleh hides from the Islamists in a family house. Mr. Atassi arrives with his own camera, and Mr. Homsi emerges as a full-fledged screen presence just before he, too, is detained by Islamic State militants.
Mr. Atassi scrutinizes Mr. Saleh’s ordinary side, filming him asleep, legs poking from under a comforter, or flinching at the sound of shelling, when he is not giving interviews over Skype to a Western journalist who tells him, “Your voice is very important.”
He also Skypes with his wife, now unexpectedly trapped back in Douma by a government siege. Mr. Saleh tells the camera, presciently, that if anything happens to her, “it would break me more than anything else.”
Finally, realizing that he can contribute nothing in Raqqa, Mr. Saleh departs for Turkey. There, he appears diminished, an old man on his first subway ride, just after his first airplane flight, stuck at a turnstile, trying to work the electronic fare card. “Like an extraterrestrial,” Mr. Atassi said in an interview.
In December 2013, before the film was finished, Ms. Khalil was in factabducted in Douma, along with their friend Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights lawyer. Friends blame the Islamic Army, a local faction they tangled with. Here, Mr. Atassi’s steadfast gaze blinks. He leaves Mr. Saleh’s reaction — “deeply private,” Mr. Atassi said in the interview — on the cutting-room floor.
Instead, the film’s emotional climax comes as Mr. Homsi himself reaches Istanbul, released from captivity and torture by the Islamic State. He and Mr. Saleh, ask themselves if their revolution is to blame for the Islamists’ rise, and their country’s destruction.
Mr. Homsi tries to reassure Mr. Saleh that he was right to flee, saying an older man would break if arrested by jihadists or the secret police, especially a man so “pure inside.” Mr. Saleh covers his eyes; a muscle in his jaw twitches. “That’s what you think,” he says.
“There’s something called a will to live,” Mr. Homsi says. Both men sob before the relentless camera. “People who want to live should get out.”
Once Mr. Saleh saw the word “exile” as an insult. Now, he says at the end, “I am part of this great Syrian exodus, and of this Syrian hope of return.” Text silently adds that he still waits for his wife’s return — “and Syria still waits for its freedom.”
Correction: January 21, 2015
An article on Saturday about the Syrian documentary film “Our Terrible Country” misstated the date it will be shown at the Artists Space site at 55 Walker Street in Manhattan. It is Feb. 13, not Feb. 18.
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