The film-maker says he wanted to make a film about the ‘hidden gem’ of the Middle East, but then events made Syria anything but.
When UK documentary maker Sean McAllister first found himself drawn to Syria — almost as respite from a career spent in life-threatening war zones — he had little idea the story that would unfold over the next five years would hurl him back onto the front line. Working alone with his camera, A Syrian Love Story documents a dissolving marriage between Palestinian freedom fighter Amer and his Syrian activist wife Raghda just as Syria blows up around them, forcing them to flee with their kids to Lebanon and eventually Paris.
“I was trying to make a film in Dubai for the BBC,” recalls McAllister. “Going crazy there, I started taking secret trips to Damascus and fell in love with the place. It seemed like a hidden jewel in the Middle East, but no-one wanted a film from there. No-one knew where Syria was or cared. I was interested in making a film about a functioning dictatorship at first.
“When the Arab Spring started, political change seemed impossible in Syria so I took off and made a film in Yemen [The Reluctant Revolutionary]. I’d met and filmed bits with Amer before I left and after four months in Yemen, I heard the unthinkable, that protests had started in Damascus and Amer and his son had been arrested on the first day holding pictures of Raghda. I flew back to the UK, gave my Yemen rushes to the editor and went straight to Damascus.”
Even without a civil war, capturing a disintegrating family in such close quarters is challenging. “Film-making often takes, but I think it can give also,” McAllister muses.
“So when things start going badly in their relationship in France, both would call on me to come over and try to sort it out or at least listen.
But I would also film, hence such intimate scenes. Our responsibility is much greater and I make the judgments in the edit of what crosses the line.”
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year¹s Sheffield Doc/Fest, A Syrian Love Story has stirred critics and audiences alike.
“The news tells stories but often fails to characterise, which is what docs do well,” say McAllister. “People come away speechless and tearful. I’ve never had so many hugs from strangers who feel compelled to hug and hold me.”