Understanding “Everday Life in a Syrian Village” Forty Years After its Production

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A snapshot from Saadallah Wannous and Omar Amiralay's film, "Everyday Life in a Syrian Village."

By: Yazan al-Hajj

Published Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Is there any point writing about a documentary more than 40 years after it was made? Perhaps we must add a few words to this question for it to make sense.

Forty years ago, a Syrian documentary was made, but was not allowed to be screened. But there is no sense in talking about “Everyday Life in a Syrian Village” (82 minutes, 1974) without first talking about its makers, Saadallah Wannous (1941-1997) and Omar Amiralay (1944-2011).

Wannous became involved in the film project after the failure of his theatrical project “A Party for June 5.” Amiralay, meanwhile, agreed to direct the film after his disappointment with his optimistic debut film, “An Attempt Concerning the Euphrates Dam” (1970).

In other words, the 1974 documentary was a new start for the two men. It planted the seeds for their later works, which would mercilessly dissect Syrian society and the “forgotten decade” in modern Syrian history, meaning the 1970s. It is here, perhaps, that the film’s importance can be located.

In his 1975 essay, “The story of an arrested film,” Wannous wrote about the circumstances surrounding the feature. He reported that the film took a whole year to make, going through three phases, between April 1971 and April 1972. He wrote, “We found ourselves from the start having to collect data and conduct field and social research, in addition to the technical and artistic concerns to make a clear film with the appropriate content.”

The film was not just an attempt to produce a documentary; it was an attempt to establish a school of filmmaking that is “committed” to social justice.

This is clear from the first few minutes of the film. Viewers will feel like they have entered the mind of Karl Marx, while he explains the concept of alienation, where the oppressed appear to live a planet away from the fruits of their labor and toil, and their crops that took them years to plant; the owners accumulate capital and the peasants accumulate nothing but wind and sand.

This was a quintessentially Marxist contrast. But what was taking place on the screen was not preparation for a revolution, but rather an illumination of the outcome of the so-called March Revolution of 1963, after agrarian reforms had supposedly taken place.

Some scenes in the film in the desert surrounding the village of al-Muwaylih remind us of the rambunctious nature we would encounter in the works of Youssef Abdelke later: the skull with the hollow eyes; the bare bones; the rusted empty tin of sardines; discarded shoes. In the film, all eyes look cruel and accusatory.

These elements are linked. The suffering is made worse when we see it framed by the caustic sandstorms, and the dry fallow lands awaiting the miracle of rain. The only thing that moves in this static picture are the machines with their jarring noises, monotonous movements, and authoritarian connotations that overlap with those of the millstones filmed in quick shots, as if to say — everyone and everything is being crushed, without exception.

Stereotypes dominate all things and people in the documentary, which divides them into two recurrent groups: the authority-affiliated people, who include police, political officials, and intellectuals repeating rigid bromides in a monotonous way with a clear military tone and register; and the rest of the “people,” who have rigid features and voices full of defeat, while their eyes express harsh gazes that sum up all that they want to say.

There is no clear difference between the politicians in the film, who claim that the revolution had genuinely changed the peasants’ lives, and the officers who justify repression because “citizens are not only ignorant, but also somewhat malicious.”

No difference is perceived either in a funny scene involving the cultural official who claims that the documentary’s screening in the village presents the Syrian Arab nation in a “good light,” while “negative shots” were clear on the faces of the peasants as they listened to a lecture on the importance of cinema in a village that barely has one radio set.

When the propaganda film in question is played, the white screen appears like a central dispenser of sedatives. This would be replaced with television years later, so that the authorities can ensure the official sedative message is reaching everyone.

The teacher in the film is the only variable element in otherwise static imagery. First he is closer to the image of the authorities, delivering his lessons in the class in the manner of a military speech. Wearing elegant clothes and a clean, shaven face, the teacher speaks about the importance of dietary diversity in a village that eats and drinks little more than bread and tea. Later, the teacher is transformed and appears more spontaneous and liberated in his bedroom, wearing pajamas and slippers.

The camera does the speaking throughout the film. The scenes move from space to space, including a bus bound for the city. There, everyone is travelling for the same reason, formulated in different ways, namely, to seek a treatment for “inflammation,” which upon repetition, seems to be the real cause for all ills in the country.

Amiralay’s camera focuses on silence as a means of expression, allowing the viewers to judge everyone’s statements for themselves, especially those of the officials who claim the peasants lack awareness. In practice, we will find that the spontaneous discourse of the illiterate oppressed people is damning for the claims of the authorities, which want to “encourage tribalism for the sake of the public interest” while the peasants say they want it eliminated. And when trade unionists claim agrarian reforms had worked, the camera rushes to show the peasants’ alienation and expulsion from the lands that are still controlled by landowners.

There can be no salvation from this hell except by a deluge that washes away everything. This is the prediction made by “Everyday Life in a Syrian Village,” which identifies with the suffering of the people in a country where no further explanations are necessary.

The film ends like it started, with children throwing sand into the hollowed eye sockets of an animal carcass in the desert. Then they drag it through the sand, forging a new path that will soon be covered again by another sandstorm.

“This is our country. Every spectator that does not put his hands in the mud is a coward or a traitor,” the filmmakers’ words proclaim, right before the lights dim and the credits roll.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Well, I thought it all might have something to do with Israel--you know, European imperialism, Syria being under attack--but I guess I was wrong--wrong to expect the truth. I wonder if the film shows that the people filmed did not trust the filmmakers.
“'This is our country. Every spectator that does not put his hands in the mud is a coward or a traitor,' the filmmakers’ words proclaim, right before the lights dim and the credits roll." Does "mud" refer to politics, the actual political history of the time and place?
Colonial powers always claim to preserve the local people's interests, by identifying those cultural values worthy of preservation, freedom not being one of them, evidently. It's like the lawyers of Europe all believe what a UK Queen's Counsel named Sullivan claimed in an article titled, "The Common Law Created the Common Man". It is true that the civil law must respect the human person by creating categories and procedures to protect the human person, but this does not mean that the civil law creates the human person.

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