Fares Helou was one of Syria’s most celebrated actors when the Arab Spring arrived in Damascus. But once his political beliefs forced him to flee the country, he suddenly found himself playing his most challenging role yet—as an exile in a foreign land.
Helou’s story is at the heart of “A Comedian in a Syrian Tragedy,” a documentary by director Rami Farah being pitched at IDFA Forum. An intimate portrait of exile, the pic spans four years as Farah and Helou leave Syria and struggle to rebuild their lives in France.
The French-Danish-Norwegian-Jordanian co-prod is produced by Lyana Saleh, of OSOR; Signe Byrge Sørensen, of Final Cut for Real; Anita Rehoff Larsen, of Sant & Usant; and Cindy Le Templier, of Shashat Multimedia Productions.
When the first demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, Farah found himself with the challenging task of trying to document the very protests he was taking part in.
“I raised my camera because…there was a duty to show the world” what was happening, he says. “When I started…we were thinking that the revolution would win, and that the regime would fall soon.”
As he filmed the growing unrest, the director found a charismatic leading man in Helou, a beloved TV star who was one of the first local actors to take a stand against the Assad regime. Farah spent the early months of the Syrian uprising following Helou with a hand-held camera, at a time when the president was vilifying the protesters and accusing them of terrorism.
“Everyone was hiding their faces, because they were worried about their families,” says Farah. Helou was among the prominent celebrities who “gave a face to this revolt.”
But as the response to the protests grew increasingly violent, Farah witnessed as many of the young artists, writers and filmmakers joined in opposition against the Assad government were arrested, killed, forced into exile—or disappeared without a trace.
Before long Helou was targeted because of his outspoken politics. With his family threatened, he decided to go into hiding—a choice complicated by the fact that he was one of the country’s most recognizable celebrities.
Instead Helou fled to Paris, where Farah and the actor’s family soon joined him in exile. Expecting to return to Damascus within a matter of weeks, the group grew increasingly alarmed as Syria descended into armed revolt, and then war. Their return now uncertain, the director and thesp spent months in a strange limbo, living in a small apartment in Paris but spending hours everyday Skyping family and friends back home.
Eventually, they came to terms with the reality of their exile. “We started to find out where we are putting our feet—what is the ground that we’re standing on,” says Farah.
Though the film began as a historical document of the Syrian protest movement, “Syrian Tragedy” evolved into a more complex and nuanced portrait of protest, hope, disappointment, and the absurdities of life in exile.
For Farah, it might ultimately serve as a snapshot of a moment in time when the flux of migrants is reshaping borders and changing the course of global politics.
“I don’t think it’s just representing me or Fares. I think it’s representing most of these people that are in exile,” says Farah. “We are Syrian, but there are many people around us from many different countries that are living the same kind of exile.
“What for? Which kinds of promises did they get before they reached this place?”