Raymond Boutros: The Last Communist

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The Syrian director relies on a visual discourse hoping to show the diversity across Syria, with its many accents.

By: Khalil Sweileh

Published Friday, August 3, 2012

A few weeks before the Syrian uprising began, Raymond Boutros was putting the finishing touches on the script for a new feature film.

The plot followed a group of young filmmakers who would travel across Syria examining and recording the features of an ambiguous national identity to reveal two contradictory versions.

The first centers on sloganeering, and would be blatant throughout the film. The second is tacit and subtle, one which the censors would not allow, with “lost dignity” as its theme.

The Syrian director relies on a visual discourse hoping to show the diversity across Syria, with its many accents. But events quickly accelerated beyond the filmmaker’s imagination. This put the director in a difficult position.

However, it was not the first time. In reality, the career of this Syrian director has been full of potholes, obstacles and disasters.

He once languished in the editing room for a whole year, glued to the Maviola machine, in an attempt to salvage what the censor had left of his first feature film Algae (1991), fixing the damage inflicted on his visual rewriting of the history of his hometown, Hama.

In his second film, he combined the image of the Palestinian Nakba with family events, filming droves of Palestinian families arriving by train after the 1948 war.

However, his father, who had immigrated to Palestine, was not among them, so his family in Hama went through a nakba of their own.

After he completed his third feature film, Hassiba (2007), the film censors rejected three projects he proposed to the National Film Organization. After protracted arguments with the intellectual committee, he still left empty handed.

Boutros talks about the ship that carried him for the first time from Latakia to Armenia and then on to the Ukraine. He had been awarded a scholarship by the Syrian Communist Party. He describes the sea journey, which lasted a whole week, as “the journey of big dreams to create a new cinema.”

On board the ship, he recalled scenes from films which had taught him the meaning of cinema, particularly Romeo and Juliet (1968) by Italian director Franco Zafarelli, with his passion for the aesthetics of the new realism in Italian cinema.

The Communist Party scholarship was for engineering, but Boutros insisted on studying film instead of going to the Energy Institute. He was the first foreigner to study at the Kiev Film Institute.

Ordinary Zionism, the documentary film he made while he was there, was exceptionally well reviewed. He received the grand prize at the Molodist Festival for film colleges in the Soviet Union in 1974.

But an unexpected shock awaited him upon his return to Syria. His application to the National Film Organization was rejected. It was the only body authorized to make films in Syria. He was accused of being a communist.

However, “the last communist,” as he refers to himself, did not immediately lose hope. He fought the bureaucrats for seven long years.

At the first conference for Syrian filmmakers in 1977, he gave an angry speech describing his circumstances as an unemployed filmmaker and accusing the administration at the ministry of culture of blocking him. He was thrown out of the hall.

After some thought, he decided that he had no choice but to go back to his old profession: stonemasonry. He went to the blacksmiths’ market in Damascus and bought a hammer and a chisel.

“My father was one of the most renowned stonemasons in Hama. I learned the secrets of stones from him – how to transform an ordinary rock, with a hammer and a chisel, into a beautiful work of art,” he says.

Here, he begins to remember his father, how he used to go with him to the workshop when he was a child and then as a young man. This was before his father left the city to go to Palestine and Lebanon; his reputation as a great stonemason preceding him.

Then he recalls his brother Khalil, a sculptor and ney flute player, who was killed in the Golan fifty years ago. His other brother, Mikhail, volunteered for the Suez War, during the tripartite attack on Egypt.

In most of his films, he borrows story lines from his hounded communist family, because Boutros will always be enchanted by his childhood environment in Hama. He visually writes the story of the Orontes river at various points in history, because it is the prime witness to all the pain.

“Do you not find a similarity in your films in that they play on a single visual theme?” I ask.

“Not at all,” he replies. Gazing at a picture of the Hama waterwheels hanging in his office, he says that “each film I’ve made has a different basis, each symphony has its own harmony. The Hama waterwheels, if you listen carefully, do not make the same sound as waves.”

This love for the history of his city – its stones, streets, and people – is what the director of The Witness (1985) wanted to reflect through a rich visual approach.

However, he admits that he is depressed by the state of Syrian cinema. “There is not a single Syrian filmmaker who has achieved what he dreamed of, like the dreams we had at the beginning for freedom of expression and cinematic visions,” he laments. “Sadly, our cinema has remained trapped in the stage of individual verses, never becoming a whole song.”

His inability to make more feature films has been compensated for by making documentaries. In his career, he has made 17 films, the latest of which was Features of Damascus (2008).

In this film, he examined Syrian mosaics, in reference to stones and humans, confirming the spirituality of Damascus throughout its eight thousand years, always preserving its pluralistic society. He dedicated the film to “the creative hands that carved a homeland called Syria out of the stones.”

In the time he lost between his faltering attempts at filmmaking, the director resorted to journalism, translating from Russian, and scripting television and radio programs.

Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, he has been writing a weekly column in al-Watan newspaper, attempting to solve the Syrian riddle, through fleeting accounts and personal anecdotes interspersed with the wounds of others.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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