After 17 years directing some of the most popular television series in the region, Syrian director Allaith Hajjo made his first short narrative film, The Cord, written by Ramy Koussa, which premiered at the second El Gouna Film Festival.
Hajjo’s first drama, Spotlight (2001-05), was an instant hit that ran for six seasons; likewise The Lovers (2008-16) and A Lost Village (2008-10), with three and two seasons, respectively. Before setting out on his own, he worked closely with director Hatem Ali, having grown up accompanying his father, the celebrated actor Omar Hajjo, on sets and backstage.
The Cord tracks 17 minutes in the life of a woman giving birth alone in wartime conditions, in a place besieged by snipers. Her husband, who is denied any access to her, cannot help in any way. The only indication of setting, however, is the spoken dialect, since there is no mention at all of Syria.
“This is the writer Ramy Koussa and my point of view,” Hajjo says. “I used to be called ‘grey’ for refusing to take sides in the conflict. But I don’t believe it helps an artist to be part of the war machine. If your views contribute to destruction and division it’s better to keep them to yourself. This war is taking place among Syrians, and so there are no winners. All are losers. That’s why my film is about war and human beings, whenever and wherever.”
But what made Hajjo turn to cinema as such? “I was offered the chance to make movies several times. Cinema has always been my ambition. But it’s not easy after two decades in television unless you’re very well prepared.” Critics have compared his episodes to short films but he is aware of the difference. “Television series is not cinema. Each is a different kind of art.”
TV is more restricted by tougher production conditions, censorship by the channels themselves and audience expectations, he says. “In cinema people choose to come so you have more freedom to express yourself and your ideas. If you stick with TV techniques in cinema then you’re losing out. You need to learn the difference.”
The Cord, which stars Nancy Khoury and Yazan Khaul, was the result of a European Union workshop with Syrian directors and writers focusing on the role of women in wartime. Both Ramy Koussa and Allaith Hajjo were part of the workshop, in which the screenplay was shortlisted for production.
“I decided to ignore my television history and start from scratch,” Hajjo says. “A different script writing technique, different production conditions, and a totally different experience.”
Though it won no awards in El Gouna, the film realises the dreams of its director. “For my first film to be screened in such a festival is the first step to success. El Gouna Film Festival is a great professional achievement which adds a lot to the film industry in the region.”
More importantly, however, “In 17 minutes my film is full of emotional shifts, from sadness to joy to tension, and a measure of success for me was the audience’s ability to register and respond to these shifts, engaging with the characters no matter who they are or where.”
Indeed, for Hajjo, the film says more about the difference between men and women in wartime than any other subject. The most critical moment is the ending, when the woman who has just given birth sends her neighbours fruits while her husband is busy taking revenge on a sniper.
“I’m not blaming the husband, I am just showing the difference. It is not important who is the victim and who is the shooter. Both are creating the war.” That breaks out of the mainstream of Syrian cinema since 2011. “If you’re Syrian you need to show your political attitude. You have to take a side. That’s what the world expects of you. But we know better what do we need at the moment.”
That is not to condemn Syrian filmmaker sending political messages through their films: “I cannot ask people under siege to be moderate or to act in this or that way. I cannot be too romantic. At the end of the day expressing your point of view with movies is better than doing it with guns. At least movies won’t harm anybody.”
And yet no political cause, however strong, can make up for an artistically weak movie: “Cinema is art and political views cannot be more important than art.” This is significant for how international institutions have dealt with Syrian filmmakers.
(Photo: still from The Cord)
“Sometimes they treat us as by definition arm bearers who need to be encouraged when they produce a film no matter how artistic or valuable it is. They believe a weak Syrian film is better than going and killing someone.” This, Hajjo says, can be detrimental to Syrian cinema. But despite difficulties younger Syrian filmmakers especially in the diaspora are forging new paths and breaking with traditions.
“They have such rare opportunities to interact with the world, to watch, to learn and be more connected. This will create a new generation of Syrian filmmakers who will produce a different Syrian cinema.”
As for television series after the war, Hajjo feels they face even greater challenges. “Syrian drama makers wasted a lot of time before the war catering to regional market demands, whether in the Gulf or in Lebanon, rather than investing in their own national channels.” This is a mistake, he says, because while Arab funds support Syrian drama, they do not support the Syrian story.
Arab channels are now politically controlled, and the only option for Syrian artists is to make tailor-made dramas with the right political message. Otherwise a new Syrian series will meet with the fate of Hajjo’s latest, Al-Waqwaq (2018), which no channel wanted to buy.
“It is based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm and it’s about the current political situation but it was not sold although it was a huge production. We have a real problem. If you don’t have a tailor-made series your production won’t go anywhere”.
Even on a low budget, a short film thus emerges as a kind of compromise, too. “It will bring about a kind of balance, to make a short film on my own terms between one series and the next, even if I have to finance it.” Where feature-length movies are concerned, however, money talks again: “Long films need real funds and who knows when these will be available.”
Hajjo doesn’t deny his desire to join the numerous Syrian artists who have contributed to Egyptian film and television. “Egypt is the gateway for any Arab artist,” he says, though he feels he has to be very careful: “I was asked to direct some TV series in Egypt which were successful when others made them but I did not feel they were part of my project. Egyptian drama has achieved such great balance between form and content, I feel I have to be in the right place at the right moment. You are not allowed to fail in Egypt.”
No matter how far he goes, Allaith Hajjo always remembers his inspiring early days with Omar Hajjo: “I would be sitting backstage watching the audience’s impressions. It was an amazing experience and it made me want to have an effect on an audience like this. This was and always will be my dream as an artist.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Syrian connection
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