Nadine Elali

A tribute to Omar Amiralay

s power struggles play out in the Levant, the Arab world lost one of its most influential and outspoken filmmakers whose works were highly critical of many political and socio-economic issues that have riddled the region for decades. Syrian documentary filmmaker Omar Amiralay died of a heart attack in his home in Damascus on Saturday February 5, 2011.

By the age of 67, Amiralay had become internationally renowned with over 20 documentary films under his belt that address controversial issues in the Arab world and that highlight the problems of contemporary Syrian society since the Baath Party took over in 1963. But other than his rich career as a filmmaker, Amiralay was also a prominent civil society activist. Most of his movies are banned in Syria, where the state has a monopoly on cinema production.

Early life and education

Born to a former officer in the Ottoman army and a Lebanese mother in Damascus in 1944, Amiralay traveled to Paris in 1965 to pursue his studies in drama and theatre. He later attended the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) under the famous French director Jean-Pierre Melville.

But May 1968 proved to be a pivotal point in Amiralay’s life. The student revolt had just erupted in Paris, and the young film student joined the protestors with the intent of recording the events. But the uprising left its mark, and Amiralay never returned to the IDHEC. Instead, he started filming documentaries.

Influential works

Two years after the revolt, Amiralay returned to Syria eager to kick start a new era in documentary cinema, but he was faced with opposition. The first of his films called Film Essay on the Euphrates Dam (1970) was a tribute to the Baath regime’s greatest development project, the Assad Dam, which had promised to improve the living conditions in the villages surrounding the dam.
His second and third films, Everyday Life in a Syrian Village (1974) and The Chickens (1977), however took a more critical approach to the regime’s policies, which is why both movies are still banned by the authorities to this day. Everyday Life in a Syrian Village, conceived in collaboration with Syria’s most celebrated modernist playwrights and essayists Saadallah Wannus, showed the dam's little impact on the lives of people living in a nearby village and portrayed the government’s failure to provide basic amenities to the poor.

Amiralay did not stop there. He continued to produce films exposing the biting reality of the Baath Party. But fate had Amiralay’s final work, A Flood in Baath Country (2003), be a revisit of his first film on the Assad Dam. In his last documentary, the filmmaker interviewed a school principle and a parliamentarian, showing how the ruling party was ideologically bankrupt.

His other works included a tribute to French sociologist Michel Seurat, who was kidnapped and murdered in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, in a film called On a Day of Ordinary Violence, My Friend Michel Seurat (1996). Amiralay also filmed a documentary titled The Man with the Golden Soles (1999) on late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Activism through cinema and beyond

Despite Amiralay’s endless attempts to help the Syrian cultural milieu flourish, most of his efforts were hampered by the Syrian authorities as they continuously banned the screening of most films. According to several art organizations, “Amiralay was the driving force in the establishment of the Arab Film Institute, a collaborative project that unites young and independent filmmakers in the region and organizes workshops and offers other support.”

Amiralay was also a prominent activist and a member of the Syrian democratic opposition. In 2000, he and 98 other Syrian intellectuals signed the Declaration of the 99, which called on the regime “to lift the state of emergency in the country, to release all political prisoners and to allow civil society organizations to work.”

Following Hariri’s 2005 assassination, the filmmaker signed a statement calling on Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon as well as on Lebanon to prevent attacks on Syrian workers residing in the country.

A great loss

With the winds of political change blowing across the region, Amiralay signed a declaration by independent Syrian figures in support of Egypt’s January 25 uprising against the regime. Unfortunately, he was never destined to see a similar one in his homeland. With Amiralay’s death, the Arab world lost a great figure at a critical time in history: a time when the wave of Arab democracy is desperately needed to reach Syria.