Syria Censorship: Opposition Directors Under the Axe
By: Anas Zarzar
Published Thursday, July 26, 2012
The National Film Organization (NFO) is the arena for most of the debates and disputes taking place in cultural circles in Syria. These disputes reflect the relationship between this state-run cultural organization and filmmakers.
Many filmmakers accuse the top echelons of the organization, particularly its general director, Mohammad al-Ahmad, “of corruption and favoritism – awarding close friends with opportunities and grants, while ignoring others.”
Each year, these arguments reach a crescendo as the Damascus Film Festival approaches. This year, however, the festival has been cancelled because of the crisis in the country. Nevertheless, an internal dispute within the organization has led to the firing of three directors: Usama Mohammad, Nidal al-Dibs, and Nidal Hasan.
The decision angered many in film circles because the three directors had declared their support for the popular uprising.
Mohammad stood up at international film festivals and produced pictures of young Syrian men who were being held in the cellars of the security forces. Hasan was arrested during the well-known demonstration of intellectuals in Damascus.
When pressed on the decision to fire the directors, NFO general director Mohammad al-Ahmad insisted that “the decision is a legal matter and came as a result of a clause in the unified law for workers, which says that an employee must be fired if he is absent from work for more than 15 working days without a valid excuse.”
He added that the decision was made on the basis of a recommendation from the prime minister’s office after a long correspondence.
He also expected the decision to raise eyebrows in circles hostile to the organization: “We are used to these reactions, but they have to understand that no one is above the law.”
Dismissed director Mohammad has been living in Paris since the beginning of the crisis in Syria. He said: “If Ahmad told you that the decision to fire us came from the cabinet, then he is a liar. If he told you that it is because we were absent from work, then he is also a liar.”
The Syrian director insists that the laws regulating artists’ work in Syria allow them to be absent, and “in return, the law asks for an annual volume of work. The decision was taken for political and security reasons.”
The maker of Stars in Broad Daylight considers his dismissal, along with two other opposition directors, as “the beginning of a process of a cultural cleansing of the other side, and the legalization of killing, detention, and torture.”
The young director Hasan also confirmed that the decision to dismiss him and his two colleagues “was signed by Mohammad al-Ahmad himself as the general director of the organization. This is in clear contravention of the presidential decree of 1973, which releases artists from official working hours, unless the artist is doing an administrative job which requires his daily attendance.”
The director of Mountains of Granite explained that there was another legal violation in the decision: “Ahmad does not have the right to sign a decision to fire me. It is up to the prime minister, because I am a Grade A employee. So it contravenes the decree issued by President Bashar Assad in 2001.”
A Letter from Usama Mohammad: In Protest
My public position on the revolution is intrinsically linked to the cinema that I tried to make. I am truly indebted to the Syrian people. I have made my films with their money, taxes levied from citizens who have been martyred in their thousands.
I have banished the cinematic and political authorities from my mind forever. I only take account of my humanity and my professional conscience.
I only fear cinema, because it can destroy you if you betray it. Filmmaking has never been a job, it has been a love affair tinged with endless fear.
It is the infinite search for the shot, setup, lighting, story, personalities, atmosphere, and structure that attempt to reflect the Syrian human moment. Then it becomes cinema, and it gives its maker the right to be a citizen in the land of the alphabet and multiple civilizations. No one and nothing concerned me, only my cinematic conscience which realizes and corrects the human conscience.
Cinematic conscience teaches freedom and belonging, ridiculing authority as well as bemoaning it and attacking it, knowing it and confronting it, confronting its squandering of time, the homeland, and beauty.
Before Stars in Broad Daylight (1988) came out, all I asked for in life was to finish it. During The Box of Life (2002), I also thought of nothing but finishing it. The two films are my identity and the justification for my life.
They are a study in violence and the psychological environment of violence, authority, prejudice, and the worship of the individual. Since Stars in Broad Daylight, I have waited for the dismissal decision, and it came yesterday.
Absence from work is such a ridiculous excuse, similar to the accusation that the people of Daraa are an armed gang. In both cases, there is an authority which is given orders by the security forces to break the law, temporarily allowing it to be above the law, just as the security forces exposed the lie of peaceful demonstrations being allowed.
This is the brainchild of savage laws created by the regime in the past, like the “economic security law.” You read it and you discover that it is outright terrorism. Each citizen is accused, found guilty and given a suspended sentence. You have to chose between being an informant and a criminal.
This is the logic of the regime today. As for the executive authorities mentioned – be they the prime minister’s office or the organization’s directors – both are not the authorities.
Here, I borrow from Amirlay his dynamic dramatic definition: they are “slaves of the authorities.” Slaves who feel they are not slavish enough, so they volunteer to “work on the crime,” and to expose “the crime of being absent from work.”
They do not dare to mourn a new Syrian symbol, the “martyr of the film sect, Bassel Shehade.” They definitely had a “party to ridicule his films.”
For five years, I have not set foot in the National Film Organization or its “international” festival, in protest against its pollution by the security forces and its artistic corruption. I have lost much but have done so gladly, because I regained some of my self.
So what do you think of today or yesterday, for example, when the murderous “reform” makes up a law which allows its slaves to dismiss you because you condemn the shelling of Homs or you call a massacre a massacre?
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.