Insyriated – Film Review by Pat V.
Director: Philippe Van Leeuw
Writer: Philippe Van Leeuw
Stars: Hiam Abbass, Diamand Bou Abboud, Juliette Navis
Recent years have seen so many images and news reports of refugees fleeing from war torn Syria that they have almost lost the power to shock. The distressing photo of the drowned Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, lying face-down on a Turkish beach or the stunned dust-covered face of a young boy sitting in an ambulance after his house was bombed in Aleppo caught the attention of the world for a brief period, only to be forgotten when the next atrocity occurred. Philippe Van Leeuw’s remarkable film, Insyriated, shows an aspect of the conflict with which we are less familiar – the daily struggles of a family who continue to live in the middle of the conflict and the appalling hardships they are forced to confront.
Set entirely in a spacious middle class apartment in Damascus over the course of a single day, this tautly constructed drama follows a mother, Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass) as she tried to protect her family and neighbours from a world in conflict. Trapped in the apartment, the only one still inhabited in the block, are her three children, her aged father-in-law – a retired professor – a neighbour’s family whose apartment has been destroyed and a maid. Oum Yazan’s husband is expected later that night, so until then she’s going to do all she can to ensure everyone remains out of harm’s way. Virtually under siege, they listen to the constant bombardment around them, watching through a window as snipers shoot anyone visible in the street.
Van Leeuw’s film has an intensely claustrophobic quality, capturing the powerlessness of the family in the face of forces over which they have no control. Not only do they have to contend with the bombing and shelling outside, their apartment is also under attack from marauders out to profit from the conflict and some scenes, following a home invasion, are of a brutality that is hard to watch. Oum Yazan must not only do everything possible to protect her family, at times forced to make decisions that are morally questionable, but also feed, distract and calm her children, assuring them that everything will be all right, that their father will come back and lead them to safety.
There are moments when we are reminded of Anne Frank in her attic, as the family try to forget the dangers of their situation with lessons from the grand-father and young love blossoming between the older daughter and Kareem (Elias Khatter), also sheltering in the house. However these moments of calm are repeatedly shattered by reminders of their vulnerability, as bombs explode nearby or by a pounding at their barricaded hall door.
Even though most of the violence takes place off screen, seeing its effect on the family gives it an immediacy that is gut wrenching. Hiam Abbass is extraordinary, capturing the gentleness and the ferocity of a mother who will do anything to protect her children. As Delhani, the foreign maid from the Indian subcontinent caught in a conflict that makes no sense to her, Juliette Navis gives a moving and mesmeric performance. The rest of the cast, largely composed of Syrian refugees who experienced the conflict first hand, are excellent. Insyriated won the Audience Award at the Berlin Film Festival this year and it is easy to see why. This is an unforgettable film. Don’t miss it.