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Last Updated: Friday, 23 November 2007, 10:38 GMT
Syria basks in yearly film limelight
By Lina Sinjab
BBC News, Damascus

Actors Sydne Rome and Marcel Iures, winners at Damascus film festival
Once a year the glamour of world cinema arrives in Syria
It is 2100 in Damascus. In the city centre people of different ages and backgrounds are queuing up at the al-Assad Centre for the Arts & Culture. The official competition of the 15th International Film Festival is taking place. Nine theatres across Damascus are showing films from all over the world, ranging from modern blockbusters to classic and independent film.

Razan Rashidi, 22, is standing at the main gate looking at the programme and chatting with friends, trying to decide which film they will catch tonight.

"It is a great opportunity to have all these films showing here," she says. "At least we have a chance once a year to have access to different types of films. These films are not screened in the cinema through the year."

More than 200 films were screened within 10 days, including include the work of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, the Italian Michelangelo Antonioni, American documentary filmmaker Michel Moore and recent Oscar and Palme d'Or winners.

Pirated movies

Although Syria produces dozens of popular television series these days, the same cannot be said for the film industry here.

The state-run Public Establishment for Cinema has only managed to turn out an average of two films-a- year since its establishment in 1969.

My work relies on self-criticism - of my life, my friends and my country because I love it. But this made my films unwelcome here
Filmmaker Meyar al-Roumi
"The establishment is the only source of funding films. Producers are much more interested in TV as its revenues are higher," says Meyar al-Roumi a 34-year-old filmmaker based in France.

"We need to create a new film audience."

In 2003, President Bashar al-Assad issued decree No 2 in order to help bolster the industry. The decree exempted cinemas from tax on equipments and renovation costs.

But the Ministry of Culture has a woeful record in renovating the handful of cinemas it operates across the country.

Apart from the occasional films shown in cultural centres, most Syrians resort to watching pirated movies at home.

"I don't understand why Syrians need to wait for one year to watch movies people are seeing around the world," says Roumi.

"The festival enjoys great popularity but there is imbalance between the intensity of film screening during the festival and the rest of the year."

Self-censored

Freedom of expression is tightly restricted in Syria, but the boundaries are often left undefined in order to encourage self-censorship.

Over the years, that self-censoring has become the norm as people fear getting in trouble.

Scene from Reyar al-Roumi's Rabia's Journey
Scene from Reyar al-Roumi's Rabia's Journey

"We are not able to write a free dialogue," says Joude Said, 27, who won a silver prize for his first short film Monologue.

"Whenever you are writing, you practise self-censorship. Even if you are not talking about politics, still you have the whole community in your mind while writing your script."

Some Syrian film-makers do push the boundaries, however.

Abdullatif Abdulhamid won a bronze prize for his controversial film Out of Coverage.

It is set around the life of a missing protagonist who the audience is given to believe is being held as a political prisoner.

"Censorship on films exists all over the world. Democracy is relative. We do have red lines. However in my recent film it was unprecedented to talk about it. I think this is a new page in a new chapter. However, the social censorship is much harder than the state," Abdulhamid said.

But Syrian audiences still have no access to films that are overtly critical of the regime.

Veteran documentary maker Omar Amiralay cannot screen his latest film Flood - which directly critics the ruling Baath party - nor can Meyar al-Roumi.

"Unfortunately we don't accept self-criticism here, although it is very important," says Roumi.

"When you talk about the negative things, you help overcome them. My films are seen as critical. My work relies on self-criticism - of my life, my friends and my country because I love it. But this made my films unwelcome here."

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