In 2011, near the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Damascus-based husband-and-wife film producers Orwa Nyrabia and Diana El Jeiroudi began raising money for movies about their country’s situation. Three years later, the couple is in exile in Berlin, and the central character in one of their films, charismatic soccer-player-turned-rebel Abdul Basset Saroot, is under siege in Homs.
And the documentary about him and his cohorts, “Return to Homs,” is screening Wednesday as part of the Washington, D.C. International Film Festival.
Nyrabia is troubled that Western nations have done so little to end the Syrian conflict. “I am getting radicalized, living in Europe,” he told the audience Monday night at Filmfest DC’s first showing of the movie. “I was nicer a year ago. I was even nicer two years ago.”
Yet the 38-year-old producer proves genial in a conversation after the screening and is more complimentary about the West’s filmmaking communities than its presidents and prime ministers. Nyrabia credits international pressure for his release from the Syrian jail where he was held for three weeks in 2012, sharing a medium-sized cell with more than 80 other prisoners.
“They had very uncertain information about me working on a film that involved Basset Saroot, but they didn’t have details, so it was not impossible for me to create a counter-narrative. Ten, 11 days of continuous lying was extremely scary and at the same time challenging,” he says with a laugh.
“They also had heard bits and pieces about me being involved in humanitarian aid for displaced people who had to flee Homs. That was certainly true, but I had to deny that categorically.
“It could have been very different if not for the international campaign,” he notes. “Otherwise, they could have tortured me more. Or forgotten me for months in such a terrible condition. They could have done anything.”
After Nyrabia’s release, he and El Jeiroudi went to Cairo to work and then got word that the Syrian government was ready to arrest him again. They stayed in Cairo for a year, but after the new Egyptian government was overthrown, the chance of being returned to Syria greatly increased. “Thankfully, the German government welcomed some people, including us,” he says.
The second film to result from Nyrabia and El Jeiroudi’s project is “Silvered Water,” which will debut next month at the Cannes Film Festival. It was co-directed by experienced Syrian filmmaker Usama Mohammed, an expatriate, and a young female newcomer, Wiam Bedirxan, who’s inside the rebel-held section of Homs.
“From besieged Homs to Cannes, I think this is a rare thing,” says Nyrabia, smiling.
Communicating with people inside Homs, and getting video footage out, is “a huge problem,” Nyrabia says. “But it’s part of what the film is about. It’s a friendship that started between the two filmmakers. The veteran and the newcomer. One in exile in France and the other in the siege.”
Bitterly contested Homs has been called “the capital of the Syrian revolution,” but Nyrabia was initially dubious when director Talal Derki proposed making “The Return to Homs.” A Kurd who then lived in Damascus, Derki admitted to Nyrabia that he didn’t exactly know Homs well.
“He said, ‘No, I’ve never been to the city, but it looks great on television.’ ” “I told him then, ‘It’s the most stupid idea I could think of. I don’t see how you could make a film in Homs. It’s not your place. You don’t know it.’ ” “So he told me he was going to Qamishli, where his family comes from. He went to Homs and returned with five minutes, presenting Basset and Ossama,” another major character in the movie. (Ossama, who also photographed some of the movie, is now missing and likely held by the government.)
“He totally cheated me! I was laughing a lot, and told him, ‘You totally got me. I can’t tell you not to go to Homs anymore.’ ” For the first year of shooting, Nyrabia traveled with Derki to Homs, serving as the documentary’s cinematographer. “We used to dismantle the camera into 14, 15 small pieces and hide it in the car’s chassis. We’d drive to Homs, protected by my mother sitting in the front seat so the checkpoint guys would be a little embarrassed to be too bad.”
“And then,” he adds, “it took us two hours to dismantle the car to get out the camera pieces and put it together.”
Later, it was difficult for either the producer or the director to visit Homs. Shooting the footage became the responsibility of people inside the city, and the large professional camera was retired.
“We had to provide small cameras, spy cameras, sports cameras, all kinds of small solutions that could help them get good footage without risking their life,” the producer says.
Although Basset Saroot likes to sing chants that oppose Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, he doesn’t articulate a political platform in the movie. That suits Nyrabia, who’s frustrated with the approach of both politicians and reporters to the war.
“What’s natural to cinema, in my opinion, is that it can bypass prejudice and help people identify,” he says. “I think it’s probably only film that can tell people that, ‘You could be there. And you could have similar choices, under similar conditions. You can even be inspired by those people you’re only scared of when you’re watching the news.’
“When an American audience finally feels that what’s happening in Syria is a human situation they can identify with, then we can all together find a way to do something.”
Nyrabia is quick to add that his criticism of Western indifference does not apply to the cinematic world. “We always have wonderful support from organizations, filmmakers, festivals. All of these people who are not (political) decision-makers are really very human and connected and believe in what we’re doing.”
“In that sense, we’re not alone. We couldn’t have done it alone.”