OUT 8 SEPTEMBER CERT 15 / 82 MINS
DIRECTOR Philippe Van Leeuw CAST Hiam Abbass, Diamond Bou Abboud, Juliette Navis, Mohsen Abbas
PLOT Two families carry on with their lives in an abandoned apartment block in war-torn Damascus. Outside are snipers and bombs; inside, an attempt at normality that masks a permanent sense of dread. When one resident must brave the snipers’ sights, the war is violently brought home.
ITS TITLE MAKES it sound more like an excruciating muscle spasm, but Insyriated is a wartime drama that offers a different kind of pain. Gruelling and occasionally overwrought, though largely gripping, Belgian filmmaker Philippe Van Leeuw’s Syrian drama explores the impact of war on the domestic space. In its 80-odd minutes, it visits enough horrors on its small band of Damascus residents to make that brief runtime feel less like economic storytelling than an act of mercy. Social-realism with bullets, the result could be dubbed ‘Syria, Year Zero’.
Defined by its director as “a film about war” rather than a war film, Insyriated’s suffocating set-up is closer to that of an apocalyptic horror. A small band of residents, including matriarch Oum Yazan (Munich actor Hiam Abbass) and young mum Halima (Diamand Bou Abboud), live together in a state of semi-hiding as rifle fire crackles and distant explosions echo outside. Their front door is barracked shut and the windows blacked over. Instead of swathes of undead, however, it’s the armed militia roaming outside they fear.
When the knock on the door finally does come, it’s the prelude to a harrowing sequence and an ensuing moral quandary that Van Leeuw presents without judgment. Trapped by terrible circumstances and under duress, how can anyone be blamed when impossible decisions arise?
Still, some of those decisions are pretty questionable. When Oum and her maid (Navis) see Halima’s husband being gunned down, they decide not to share the news with her. Sure, she may believe she’s saving Halima from her own sniper’s bullet, but it rings hollow from a tough, resolute woman who has to make a dozen awful decisions a day to keep her family safe.
Still, Abbass is terrific throughout. The closest thing to a lead, she undercuts her character’s strength with a sense that, beneath the steely veneer, she’s close to crumbling. With her own husband outside among the bullets and their home under constant threat, she’s clearly putting on a front for her family’s sake.
Cinematographer-turned-director Van Leeuw makes good use of handheld cameras, showing how quickly the home can switch from sanctuary to trap. When a family member ventures into the burnt-out killing ground outside or wanders near an uncovered window, you hold your breath waiting for the sniper’s bullet to whistle in. At other times the film settles into the rhythms of domestic life as Oum and her clan doggedly get on with life without power, telephones or running water. An early (and rare) moment of levity has Oum scolding a daughter for using their drinking water to wash her hair.
Van Leeuw isn’t afraid to tackle the toughest subjects — his 2009 film, The Day God Went
Away, was set during the Rwandan genocide — but cares little for the politics behind the conflict. All that matters is survival. There’s nothing exploitative in his approach, either.
Insyriated was filmed in Lebanon and with the exception of Munich veteran Abbass, Navis and Abboud, it was cast using real Syrian refugees who’d never acted before. It’s the same approach taken by Roberto Rossellini on his 1945 wartime classic Rome, Open City and offers a similar sense of authenticity, albeit with more modest results. It feels real because it is.
VERDICT Ignore the awful title, this is a taut drama that puts a human face on Syria’s humanitarian crisis. No cheap thrills or easy answers here, but plenty of gut-churning drama.