Although films were already being produced in Syria after 1936 when the independence was gained, Syrian Cinema only began to gain its national identity in the 1960s with the intervention of the state in private productions. Syrian filmmakers remained under the influence of the Egyptian cinema until the state intervened in Syria; this is likely due to the fact that before then, exiled Egyptian filmmakers had played a large part in Syrian national cinema. The Syrian General Organization for Cinema adopted a strategy of finding young talent when it was founded in 1963, resulting in films which began to attract some attention at international film festivals in the 1980s despite on an average producing just one or two films each year. During these years, names such as Tawfiq Salah, Omar Amiralay, reached the world as representations of the country’s talent, as well as some directors such as Samir Zikra and Mohammad Malas, both of whom have studied cinema in Moscow. Syrian filmmakers had begun their quest to create the “seventh art”, influenced by French and Soviet cinema, as well as the cinema of some Eastern European countries.
Syrian movies in Istanbul
The first Syrian film I watched was “Dreams of the City” (Ahlam Al-Medina), directed by Mohammad Malas, which was shown at the Istanbul International Film Festival in 1985. The film follows the story of a teenager in Syria in the 1950s who had left his village and went to Damascus with his mother and brother upon the death of his father. The plot moves in parallel with the political changes in the country and the entire Middle East, such as the Arab-Israeli war and the Arab League; Malas did a good job especially considering this was his first feature film. Until then, the only Syrian director I knew was Mustafa Al-Akkad, the director of “The Message” (1974) which was about the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and thr ” Lion of the Dessert” (1981). He continued his works as a producer in the United States, eventually being killed with his daughter in a bomb attack by al-Qaeda in Amman in 2005. “Dreams of the City” had brought my attention to Syrian cinema, as had the movie I saw at the Istanbul International Film Festival.
Productions such as; Samir Zikra’s movie about a musician who tries to improve the musical culture in his country after graduating from the Moscow Conservatory, “Chronicle of the Coming Year” (Waqai Al’am al-Muqbil, 1986)… Ossama Mohammed’s movie that narrates the unity of the family in context of a double-wedding “Stars in Broad Daylight” (Noujoum An’Nahar, 1988)… Abdellatif Abdelhamid’s jubilant comedy of “Nights of the Jackals” (Layali Ibn Awa, 1989)… Again, Muhammad Malas’s story with autobiographical undertones taking place in a city in ruins during the Arab-Israeli War “The Night” (Al Leil, 1992)… And again, Ossama Mohammed’s second film after a 14-year break, “The Box of Life” (Sunduq Al-Dunya, 2002)… Abdellatif Abdelhamid’s movie about a father trying to make a living out of music, and his six sons, “September’s Rain” (Matar Ayloul, 2010)… all of these films have stuck in my memory over the last 25 years as the most distinguished and qualified examples of the Syrian cinema.
Turkish films in Damascus
A special section was prepared for the Turkish cinema, and Turkan Soray was invited to the festival as an honorary guest to the last and 18th Damascus International Film Festival of 2010, which had been held every two years since 1979 and every year since 2007 under the provision of the Syrian state.
Soray held a press conference in Damascus with the officials from the Syrian Ministry of Culture and the National Organization for Cinema. She stayed for five days and watched a slideshow and the famous film “The Girl with the Red Scarf” with Syrian cinema enthusiasts. In her speech accepting the Syrian Culture Minister Riad Ismat’s award for participation in the festival, Soray expressed her pleasure being in a friendly and neighboring country, saying, “Art, and especially cinema, brings peoples and countries together. We are experiencing the miracle of cinema tonight. My greatest desire is to produce a movie in Syria.”
In the Turkish section of the 2010 festival, of which Istanbul Film Festival’s director Kerem Ayan had participated as a member of the international jury, movies such as Yilmaz Guney’s “Hope”, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Three Monkeys”, “Climates”, “Distant” and “Clouds of May”, Semih Kaplanoglu’s “Honey” and “Milk”, Dervis Zaim’s “Waiting for Heaven”, Cagan Irmak’s “My Father and My Son”, Yilmaz Erdogan’s “Jolly Life”, Mehmet Eryılmaz’s “A Fairground Attraction”, were shown and Reha Erdem’s “Cosmos” had taken its place amongst the 24 movies in the international section. In addition, many representatives from the professional organizations of Turkish cinema had met with the Syrian filmmakers and the possibility of cooperation was discussed.
Undoubtedly there was a background to this warm atmosphere between the filmmakers of those two countries. The Damascus International Film Festival, in which Suha Arin won the award for the second place (the Silver Sword) in 1979 with the documentary named “Fatma of the Forest”, had also given the first place award (the Golden Sword) in 1984 to Serif Goren’s film “Remedy”.
In 1987, Ismail Gunes’s film “Before the Sunrise” and Yusuf Kurçenli’s movie “Merdoglu Omer Bey” represented Turkish cinema in the festival.
In 2005, Yavuz Turgul’s “Lovelorn” was introduced to Syrian cinema enthusiasts, and in 2008, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Three Monkeys” was shown as the opening film of the festival.
In short, the Damascus International Film Festival, aside from being the universal dimension for the art of cinema, was also a good way for the revival of close relations between Syria and Turkey; until 10 years ago.
Decision to establish cultural centers
The Fenerbahce football club had visited Syria in March 2007 for the opening of the Aleppo Olympic Stadium, and had a friendly game with the Al-Ittihad football club which ended in a score of 2-2. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Turkish Prime Minister of the time Recep Tayyip Erdogan watched the game together. It was even rumored that al-Assad would support Fenerbahce, while Erdogan would support Al-Ittihad during the game.
Similarly around the same time, the Culture Minister of Turkey Ertugrul Gunay met with his counterpart Riad Ismat in Syria in January 2011, stating that both countries have a common culture in terms of history, language, religion, cuisine and music, and agreed on opening some cultural centers in Istanbul, Ankara, Damascus and Aleppo.
Unfortunately, this positive atmosphere in bilateral relations did not last long. The relations were completely cut off when Turkey’s persistent mistakes in foreign policy were combined with the chaos and violence caused by the conflict of Syria, which has been forced to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty against Western-backed terrorist organizations since the 2011 as one of the main targets of the “Greater Middle East Project”. The Damascus International Film Festival, which has a vibrant and dynamic cinematic atmosphere, was never able to be organized again, and Turkan Soray was never able to make a film in Syria. As a cinema enthusiast and a critic, I can tell you that my biggest desire is Syria being cleaned up from the terrorism, for Damascus to return to the joyful days of festivals, for the reunion of the Turkish and the Syrian filmmakers, and to see examples of high-quality and real Syrian cinema in Istanbul.
Read also Tunca Arslan’s article about the Iranian Cinema