A few weeks ago G forwarded a comment from a friend whose signature used an Arabic expression I had never heard before: a long Syrian film.
I understand the words, I told G, but I have no idea what they mean. What is a long Syrian film?
I love Syrian films – and they aren’t particularly long. In fact, they’re surprisingly good, although they are almost totally inaccessible to Syrians living inside the country. The ones I’ve seen have been screened at film festivals in the US, or at the French Institute in Damascus, which as a private, (French) government affiliated institution is somehow exempted from Syrian ministry censorship.
Of the ten or more Syrian films I have seen, Oussama Mohammad’s Sacrifices (Sundouq al-Dunya) is my favorite, if favorite were a word sufficient to describe a film that shifted my sense of the world so that I left the theater a different person.
The film is perhaps one of the best evocations of magical realism, an appropriate mode for a film whose Arabic title, which literally translates to “the box of the world”, refers to the “magic boxes” that traveling entertainers brought with them from village to village to amuse local children.
Canada’s Cinematheque 2006 film festival program describes Sacrifices in terms nearly as lyrical as the film itself:
Sacrifices, Oussama Mohammad’s extraordinary second feature — made almost 15 years after his much-acclaimed, still-banned Stars in Broad Daylight (screening July 7) — is a striking, sumptuous work that pays stunning homage to Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky and his final film, The Sacrifice. (Mohammad, like many of Syria’s finest directors, was trained at VGIK, the Soviet film school in Moscow.) Mystical, meditative, and rendered in breathtaking images and compositions, this strange, otherworldly fable centres on an extended family living in an Alawite mountain village. When the powerful family patriarch dies without designating an heir, his children and grandchildren, thrown into uncertainty, begin contending for the family name. Sacrifices is awash in startling evocations of the elemental and primal (birth, death, eggs, breast milk, mud). In one unforgettable scene, freckles migrate from a young girl’s face to a boy’s shoulder. Selected for Un Certain Regard at Cannes, “Sacrifices indicates a particular shift in Syrian cinema toward a complex, metaphorical language — a recurrent recourse to metaphor, the fantastic, the absurd, the comic … This phenomenon can be explained by the strengthening of censorship since the mid-1990s” (Cécile Boëx, Film Comment).
Sacrifices contains what I consider one of the most visually searing indictments of the country’s militarization: a man returns from the Syrian-Israeli front to visit his wife. She covers him in mud to bathe him as martial music plays, and as she washes away the mud, he disappears – casualty of a regime that promotes a meaningless war it cannot win. (The film was made in 2002, when Syria was less open and memories of an active front may have been more vivid.)
Of course, the long Syrian film mentioned above had nothing to do with actual Syrian films. Its from an expression, G told me. You don’t know it? Its
“فيلم أميركي طويل”
No – I didn’t know it. But I did know how to google it.
A long American film is the title of a play by well-known Lebanese musician and playwright Ziad Rahbani, which was made into a movie in 1980. (How it was filmed during the civil war is a mystery to me, but filmed it was.) Since then, it seems to have entered public discourse as an expression. I can’t find a definition, but I did find some tantalizing examples:
1) in the English-language Thara, a Syrian publication that describes itself a a “weekly review of scholarship and literature on women, which features a commentary by Ayman Wanous on the plight of Iraqi and other orphan children:
We are constantly reminded of children’s suffering with pictures and abstract paintings of starving African children. At first sight, one gets the impression that they cannot be real and are in fact, as Ziad Al-Rahbani says, just part of a long American film based in a fictional world.
2) in an excerpt from the xml mark-up of a website rather forbiddingly titled “Military and War”: Are we watching a long American film, in which the masks of the heroes and of the supporting cast begin to fall, one after another, causing the audience to anticipate the revelation of the way the…
3) in a 2005 Gulf News round-up of Arab views on Palestine, which included a rather hard-to-follow criticism of satellite television channels whose coverage of Israeli settlers protesting against the closure of their settlements the author considered to glorify their cause: It seems their cameras are infatuated with the colonists’ reactions and certainly these weeping images have their advantages for Israel. “This is but a long American film, as many Palestinians from Gaza have said. Its repulsiveness does not encourage one to try to investigate the situation further”.
and, searching with the variant “a long American movie:
4) a story from the website of a Ramallah internet cafe about life under occupation in Gaza, which begins: This is not a ‘Long American movie’ where the white American hero is always in control using the latest hi-tech arms to kill the criminals and his ‘enemy’ …
5) a 2003 Naharnet recapitulation of a Ghassan Tueni editorial criticizing Arabs’ inactivity in the face of Bush administration blunders in the Middle East, which quoted him as saying that “It is time to abandon the role of viewers watching developments in Palestine and Iraq like they would watch a long American movie and wonder about the hero’s fate.”
I’m still not totally clear on what a long American film is, but I do get that it has something to do with action adventure films like Die Hard, in which one man takes out hundreds of enemies on some kind of mission to save the world, without many allies but with the aid of incredibly powerful, technologically advanced, special effects-friendly weaponry. And I’m curious to know more ….!