24th – 28th September 2017, Belmont Filmhouse, Aberdeen
Covering twenty-four hours in the lives of two families, barricaded in an apartment in war-torn Syria, the latest film from Belgian filmmaker Philippe Van Leeuw is an emotionally fraught affair. It opens with birdsong and the choppy-hum of helicopters and, through a crack in the curtains, we see an elderly man smoking. He turns back into the apartment and the camera follows; from that brief moment, the audience is held captive.
In the absence of her husband Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass) has to protect her three children, their grandfather, her daughter’s boyfriend, the housemaid and a neighbouring couple with a newborn son.. The fuse is lit, but there’s nowhere to run.
Oum Yazan runs the household with the ferocity of a lioness in an attempt to retain some normality. Despite no running water, the housemaid cleans and meals are prepared. Hand-held shots capture intimate moments between the characters; they are filmed against the side of the frame creating a sense of confinement and stifling claustrophobia. Close-ups of messy toothbrushes focus attention on the minutiae of everyday family life. The teenagers bicker, Oum Yazan admonishes, Halima (Diamand Abou Abboud) cares for her crying son and the young boy teases his grandfather. The atmosphere is fractious, tense and reminiscent of life in the secret annex so vividly described by Anne Frank.
Outside, bombs explode and machine-gun fire sounds like someone pounding on the door. When anyone leaves the apartment, lingering camera shots focus on the solemn ritual of bolting and unbolting the front door. But it’s only a matter of time before the outside world comes knocking.
Eventually there is an ominous knock on the door, Oum Yazan sees three men through the spy-hole and she orders them to leave. Later, when the men break into the apartment everyone hides in the kitchen, except for Halima who hesitates because her son is alone in the bedroom. What happens next is brutal and difficult to watch. Both women have to make choices; instinct for survival is pitted against the needs of others.
The film doesn’t judge; it is a portrayal of ordinary people in impossible circumstances doing the best they can. It’s emotionally complex: honesty, empathy, dignity and the selfishness of self-preservation are inextricably linked. The film’s title, too, sounds like a combination of infuriated, intimidated and incarcerated. In time it may become the word we use to describe the emotional landscape of the civilian population in Syria.
Van Leeuw has said that Insyriated isn’t a war film; it is a film about war. Perhaps it might be considered as a new sub-genre, for a new type of conflict, where much of the violence is directed against civilians fighting for survival trapped in their embattled neighbourhoods.
Oum Yazan is often filmed looking in the mirror, which highlights how alone she is and the responsibility she bears. At times of confrontation and of comfort there are occasional over-the-shoulder shots filmed in the mirror. Moments are captured and framed revealing much about the inner conflicts of the characters. Such shifts from a wide perspective to a narrow one, also holds up a mirror to the audience: how to respond to the challenges of a film like Insyriated? What can we do? Perhaps the last word belongs to Anne Frank, who wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”