Hazem Alhamwi: From My Syrian Room

The Season of Destruction

His thick black hair, trimmed at the front and sides, drew attention to the solemnity of his eyes. Age had not touched his temples, yet his face was marked by the deeply drawn lines, characteristic of a poet born in the wrong decade. His heavy pouches, tokens of the habitual night visitors, harbored the reserves of unshed tears. Sitting next to his old friend Hazem, he cast his eyes on Hazem’s drawing. Following the wanderings of the ink pencil, he could not let his eye drift from the urban ruins that had swallowed the white of the canvas. There was no hint of color. Nor did it seem to have any beginning or end. “Is it as easy to draw destruction as it is actually to destroy?”, the man uttered, addressing the question to Hazem. “It sells at the moment. It is the season,” Hazem answered hesitantly. The two men chuckled, but their laughter soon ceded, dissolving into heavy silence. “The season of destruction,” the man repeated as the train of thoughts shifted through his face. “Destruction is difficult, even here.” Staring intently at the object of his creation, Hazem added: “Destruction creates some extraordinary details.” An agonizing silence settled in once again, only to find relief in the ruffle of air. As if smothered by the question that should have long been answered, the man dropped at last: “Where are the people in this drawing?” “Under the rubble,” Hazem responded quietly.

With this heart-wrenching dialogue opens an author-driven film From My Syrian Room by Hazem Alhamwi. Born in Damascus in 1980, Alhamwi studied Painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts. He pursued his formal education in Theater Criticism at the Syrian Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts where he discovered his passion for cinema, which in turn brought him to the Arab Institute of Film where he studied under the supervision of the acclaimed Syrian director Omar Amiralay.

Before the feature-length documentary From My Syrian Room came the series Childhood of the Place and experimental productions The Right Side of that Road and Blue Coma, to name a few. Something that features perhaps in all of his films is a sense of escape from captivity, which never slips into emptiness but attempts to find beauty in the exile of humanity. To put it in the words of the Syrian critic Khalil Sweileh, Alhamwi moves away from the “nationalist concerns” strained by the political ideologies toward the “uprising of the ego” that offers space “to play, to distress and rejoice, to make mistakes and succeed.” In this regard, Alhamwi represents the new wave of Arab filmmakers whose films are different from the sober films of the past that had no sense of play. In the interview with the Palestinian Hungarian journalist Nadia Muhanna, Alhamwi concurred that there was a lot of experimentation in his oeuvre because he liked to work on the unexpected: “Making a film is like going on an ego trip where I discover a lot of inner treasures. The ego is very demanding but it also has a lot to give.”

Alhamwi’s latest film From My Syrian Room was shot in 2012 when the winds of hope were blowing through Syria after 40 years of political stagnation. It was the spring of the Arab discontent, when people, young and old, demanded liberation and democratization. Yet when the unrest erupted, the whole world witnessed violence and death venturing onto the streets of Syria. “In the early months of the uprisings,” Alhamwi recalled, “I was overtaken by a deep feeling of the certainty of death looming near me, around me. How can it not be when it was claiming lives [on] the streets next to mine?”

In the wake of these turbulent events, as if wanting to leave traces of his life, Alhamwi retreated to his room and turned to painting and filmmaking. Nuanced monochrome tones, associative motives, and journeys into the imaginative worlds were his salvation. His personal, intimate memories interwove into the heavy collective memories of violence that roamed the streets of his homeland. However, that violence was not new or alien. “I have known it well,” the filmmaker explained, “I have seen it in schools, in families, and [on] the […] streets. Today it is simply rising to the surface.”

History of Forgiving, Not Punishing

While his fellow country-men emerged from their closed rooms, exposing their anger and standing up to the bullets, Alhamwi was not on the streets. When I first met Alhamwi in Berlin in the winter of 2014, he told me that he had always believed that one could not be an artist and a general at the same time. What one might call a mere feebleness of character or even cowardice, for Alhamwi it was a matter of choosing the right path, the right direction. The filmmaker recounted that since the outbreak of the revolution every time he had faced the violent behavior, the place demanded him to pick a side, stance, or an opinion. It pressured him. He felt a special kind of loneliness as the society he belonged to was rejecting him. The main question that lay before him, which also fueled the film, was not whether one was pro or against the Assad regime, but whether one was pro or against the war. He said: “I know a lot of people working against the dictatorship, but they employ the same tool – the tool of violence. […] People used to ask me which side I support. They assumed if I was against the Assad regime, I was on the side of the rebels. In fact, I opposed both. Back in Syria, they used to call me a dreamer. I accept to be a dreamer because I refuse to be a victim of the culture of violence. I wish the film to be honest about what is happening in the manner of art as non-violent human expression.”

When talking with Alhamwi, it became clear that he was wary of any political (mis)use of his film. He said that the memory, in which he had let us in, was heavy and belonged to the people of Syria as much as it belonged to him. “Therefore, it is critical that the film marks a new chapter of history of forgiving, not punishing,” the filmmaker noted.

Alhamwi confessed that in making this film he had had quite a hard time to keep balance in portraying fear and oppression without resorting to a violent image. To negate death and violence that had insinuated themselves into the modern definition of normality, Alhamwi turned to visual metaphors as cinematic means to color his thoughts and sentiments on the war. By employing some of the classic subjects of time-lapse photography, i.e. plants growing and flowers opening, the filmmaker painted the tragic picture of the war. For instance, when we hear people chanting on the streets, a plant is growing tall in its ambitious task to reach efflorescence. When the war breaks out and we hear gunshots confronting gunshots, the verdant promise is reclining shyly.

Early in the film, Alhamwi introduces us to his faithful friend – a turtle – to whom he devotes a monologue. Inside the shell of the reptile, Alhamwi finds a metaphor for himself: For “34 consecutive autumns” he, too, was inhibited to express his pain to the outside world. The streets often left him at mercy of fear, compelling him at once to swallow the child of his own creation – a caricature of Hafez Al-Assad’s face – when the armed forces appeared in sight. Drawing in his room was the only space where he could express this pain and preserve the human being inside him – playing, singing, and drawing, trying to create something beautiful, something useful.

The film, too, came from his room. For over ten years, a canvas and a camera were his close friends. They helped him document the life he lived and witnessed. They staged incursions past his room into the rooms of others, people whom he trusted and who trusted him — his family, teachers, and friends. In the film, they all reflect on their lives shaped by the regime that had tamed their minds and defined how they loved.

Blue That Does Not Resemble the Sky

Stories of Alhamwi and his family haunt us long after watching the film. They compel us to explore the complexities of family relations and how a political system can influence the course of our lives. Perhaps, the story of Alhamwi’s father might come to redefine our understanding of a good citizen, who then the former editor of the Ba’ath newspaper refused the perks of endorsing the regime, resigned, and opened a dairy shop. Perhaps, the story of Alhamwi’s friend Ghassan Jbaai might help us gauge the degree of man’s resilience, who once a theater writer and poet then a political criminal, serving a decade-long prison sentence, stripped cigarette boxes of their silver paper and used animal bones for a pen to write down ideas and even create a morning newspaper. Perhaps, the numerous stories of Alhamwi’s teacher and friends might make us comprehend the degree of loss in a war time. In the hard edges of the teacher’s honest eyes and deep folds of her amber-colored face, we are reminded of schools, robbed of innocence, and childhood, stolen from our children. Children who dream of playing violin at the seaside, alone and at peace. Children who play marbles in spite and in the face of the war, yet their marbles are now replaced by empty bullet cartridges. Children who inherit prison sentences while dictators inherit states.

Alhamwi’s composed camera follows him to the school he attended as a boy. The filmmaker comes to the realization that nothing has changed: The desks and the massive black gate are the same; the slogans and the songs for the President are the same, except for the President’s first name. At last, Alhamwi does catch sight of one thing that has changed: The color of the students’ uniforms. With much poetry in his words and pain in his voice, he notes: “We wore an earth-tone color that does not resemble the earth. Now they are in a blue that does not resemble the sky.”

As Alhamwi’s camera withdraws from the deserted classrooms, an eerie feeling lingers at the school: Benches left stranded of no use, handcrafted birds that walk, and wrinkled airplanes cast off hurriedly onto the wooden floor. The film closes with the night enveloping the raging sky of Damascus. And as the city pretends to sleep, Alhamwi’s camera roams the streets, eavesdropping to the man’s humming in mellifluous Arabic: “Stop talking about civilization. Stop singing for history. If you cannot make pens and erasers, you should not be proud of your weapons.”

France / Syria / Germany / Qatar 2014, 70 min.

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Sevara Pan
Sevara Pan
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