Film-goers Flock to See Syrian Productions

New cinemas showing domestic films draw crowds and revive fortunes of industry.

Film-goers Flock to See Syrian Productions

New cinemas showing domestic films draw crowds and revive fortunes of industry.

Thursday, 21 May, 2009
Locals queued eagerly at the ticket booth of a new cinema in the northern city of Homs on a recent Thursday evening.

For once, they were not waiting to watch another American or Egyptian blockbuster.

This time, it was a Syrian-made feature film called Silina that was attracting most of the cinema-goers – which is pretty unusual in a country where local film productions are scarce.

“We haven’t sold that many tickets for a Syrian film in a long time,” said Mahmoud, who works at a theatre box-office.

“Actually, I don’t remember the last time that a Syrian movie was shown in the cinemas.”

Silina – which was released in March and is still showing in Syria and in other Arab countries – is a musical based on a love story about a king and simple village girl.

The film, which is based on a popular Lebanese play, explores the way in which people in positions of power use their influence to serve their own interests.

Another noteworthy success this year was the film Damascus Speaks, about Saint Paul’s visit to the Syrian capital some 2,000 years ago.

Following the wide popular acclaim that these and some other recent Syrian film productions have received, observers are talking about a revival of the country’s cinema industry.

For many years Syrians largely abandoned going to the movies, but that trend is reversing today.

Tickets, which range in price between two and four US dollars, are affordable for many.

There are currently 25 cinemas across Syria, according to the culture ministry.

Until 2001, films could only be imported and distributed by the state-owned national cinema company.

In the past, this hindered the establishment of private theatres and the development of an independent production sector.

But now independent producers have been encouraged by the growing number of young film-goers turning up at private theatres, say observers.

One of these venues, the Damascus Cinema, which opened recently in the capital, can accommodate around 500 people.

Last year, five Syrian films were produced by independent companies – a significant increase on previous years.

“It is promising to see private production houses [becoming interested] in making local films,” said Jude Said, a young film director.

But despite the attention that independent cinemas are currently devoting to local films, the industry is still developing slowly, note observers.

“The ball is in the court of the private sector,” said Abdel-Latif Abdel-Hamid, a film director and screenwriter.

Private investors need to create more attractive cinemas to increase public interest in local films, he said.

Since 1963, most local films have been produced by the national cinema company, which produces two feature films and a dozen documentaries every year on average.

The budget of this company has been limited, which explains the small number of productions in the past, said Kamal Mora, a screenwriter working for a production house.

Mora also said that the development of Syrian cinema has not been helped by national cinema company-sponsored films having to reflect the government line.

Although such productions profess to show the everyday lives of Syrian people, they really mirror the views of the state, according to one filmmaker.

As with television programmes and plays, most movies – even those produced with private funds – have to be approved by a state-controlled censoring body before being viewed by the public.

In addition to these tight controls, many believe that cinema in Syria is not developing as quickly as it might because most independent producers would rather make television programmes.

“Producers think that TV series are more secure and more profitable than films,” said cinema critic Raafat Sharkas.

The television drama industry has witnessed a significant boom in the past few years, with Syrian TV series becoming very popular across the Arab region.

Yet in spite of all the obstacles, young film-makers and actors are enthusiastic about working on domestic movies, especially since these are often shown at international film festivals, said Abdel-Hamid.

Recently, for the first time in many years, Rose Moussa, a 60-year-old housewife, went with her family to the cinema. They decided to see Silina.

She recalls the last time the local film industry was booming.

“It used to be a tradition for the whole family to go to the movies in the Seventies,” she said. “The release of every new Syrian production [created] real excitement for us.”

Moussa added that she hoped the latest productions would encourage people to get into the habit of going to the cinema once more.
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