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.

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