What is it like to experience a civil war? What does life turn into when we are confined to a small apartment, family and close relatives crowding into each other, water almost running out and snipers watching every excursion outside? These are some of the questions that Brussels-born director, Philippe Van Leeuw, explores in his latest film, Insyriated. The film was shown in Mexico City during the Black Canvas Contemporary Film Festival, held from the 21st until the 26th of November in different cinemas.
“The festival was actually planned for September,” said Atenea Patiño, festival designer and coordinator. “The opening was scheduled for the nineteenth of September but after the earthquake hit the city, everything had to be postponed. We’re so happy that all these wonderful films are being shown to the people living in Mexico.”
Organized by the Universidad de la Comunicación, the festival aims to bring contemporary cinema to people who would otherwise have difficult access to such films, which are often not widely distributed. The festival included a section of Mexican short films, plus over forty full feature films from thirty five different countries. In its first edition, the festival’s main theme was Darkness.
“There was of course darkness in its literal meaning, but we also wanted to explore darkness and the subjectivity,” said José Carlos Castillo, festival designer and coordinator. “You could see it in the program’s design and festival leaflets. Darkness can also be the feeling you get when a film is not that easy to decipher. A shadow is cast over you and your emotions as you exit the cinema. Which is what a lot of contemporary film directors want to explore.”
Insyriated plunges the viewer into the horrors of the Syrian civil war. Set in an old apartment building in Damascus, the film conveys a feeling of claustrophobia from the first moment. Nine tenants try to survive not only the war, but the tensions that stem from living in such confinement. In charge is Oum Yazan, played splendidly by Hiam Abbas, a matriarch who’s not afraid to stand her ground but who’s also caring. She takes care of her aging father, young children and a maid, as well as a neighbor, Halima, and her baby.
Halima, played by Diamand Bou Abboud, comes into the crowded apartment after her husband has left the building in the hopes of talking to the fixer who’s promised to take them to Lebanon. Halima is quiet and reserved, a stark contrast to Yazan’s mercurial temper; blonde and blue-eyed, Halima resembles a Persian princess from The Thousand and One Nights, though her anguish and distress, we learn, have been lying under the surface.
As war rages on, both will have to find the strength to fight stay alive. “This is my home. No one will force me out of it,” says Yazan. The film has some difficult sequences to watch, but Philippe Van Leeuw succeeds in capturing the damage that war can bring to the human psyche, and its attempts to survive in the midst of chaos and violence nonetheless.