When Amer Daoud and Raghda Hassan fell in love, they were both serving time in prison. He was a Palestinian freedom fighter and she a Syrian revolutionary. Fifteen years later, when director Sean McAllister stumbled across their unusual romance, Raghda was once again behind bars, this time for writing a semi-autobiographical novel that was deemed too critical of president Bashar al-Assad’s administration. McAllister followed Amer and Raghda’s lives for the next five years, witnessing their reunion and the subsequent disintegration of not only their relationship, but the regime itself in “A Syrian Love Story,” an invaluable and ultimately heart-breaking glimpse into current Middle Eastern conflicts that looks past the headlines to reveal the human beings involved. Festival attention and a European Film Award nomination should attract American eyes to this daring docu, which opened in London on Sept. 18.
In 2009, McAllister flew to Syria on a glorified press junket and ended up thrown into jail with his camera confiscated. That was before most documentarians would have considered Syria’s political situation worth covering, though McAllister — whose films “The Liberace of Baghdad” and “The Reluctant Revolutionary” found identifiable characters among the instability of Iraq and Yemen as well — was curious to explore what he considered “a functional dictatorship.” Straying from the tourism-centric agenda that the country thought they’d be getting, the helmer went looking for a “real” story and discovered Amer.
At the time, Amer clearly saw McAllister as a potential ally in the liberation of his wife, and the British filmmaker played along, grateful for the “gritty” material his subject was providing: Here was the consistently courageous director’s link to Syria’s shameful political prisoner situation, as Amer spoke of his own experiences and organized protests in hopes of pressuring authorities to release Raghda, depicted via camera-phone footage. His eldest son, Kaka, came home from one such demonstration with stories of being manhandled and beaten by police — documentary gold — whereas four-year-old Bob runs around amid the rubble, seemingly oblivious to what appear to be dangerous surroundings.
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After five months, Raghda returned home, and McAllister made the all-important choice to keep filming, sticking with the story until 2015. That meant following the family from their home in Tartus to Yarmouk, a Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus. After McAllister was arrested, they fled to nearby Lebanon, though Raghda — the haggard husk of the radiant rebel spirit seen in earlier photographs — is clearly torn between Amer and the greater political cause to which she is also wed, abandoning him at one point in favor of the Syrian fight. Later, McAllister rejoins them in Paris, where they are accepted as refugees, owing to Raghda’s status as a known revolutionary.
This, too, might have served as a tidier “happy ending” in another filmmaker’s eyes, but McAllister senses that the story isn’t over. The family moves again, this time to the picturesque southern French town of Albi. By this time, Bob (the young son who’s so easily mistaken for their daughter) seems to have forgotten that he ever lived in Syria, whereas Raghda can’t let go of her own connection to the country — a tension that seems to be eating the family apart from within and leaves audiences with a very different impression, given the melancholic place where McAlliser finally decides to wrap his romance.
Technically speaking, “A Syrian Love Story” isn’t much to look at: Acting as his own one-man crew, McAllister is an entirely too casual cameraman and a frustrating interviewer, pressuring his Arabic-speaking subjects to express themselves in English and then putting words in their mouths when they can’t find them. Raghda may be a passionate and intelligent activist, but she sounds foolish describing her state of mind as an “empty feeling of bad thing,” while an alarming amount of the other dialogue comes from characters repeating McAllister’s leading questions.
Still, it’s clear from the outset that McAllister’s aim was never to provide a portrait of Syria, either as a “tourist hot spot” or the Arab Spring battlefield that it became, eschewing the bloody, bullet-riddled front-line footage that has found its way into other recent Syrian documentaries. Though the footage itself amounts to an unsteady, lo-res collection of homevideo-grade moments, most of it shot in kitchens, bedrooms or around the coffee table, the cumulative impact is staggering, reinforced by local musicians and heavy chords from Davina Shun’s cello. Over the course of McAllister’s intimate connection with his characters, the helmer has put faces and personalities to the struggle against Assad, while revealing the nuances of an otherwise abstract tragedy — namely, how the Syrian political situation both created and ultimately corrupted such a beautiful love story.