Muhammad Malas, Syria’s Auteur, is the subject of a Film Biography

10 January, 2021

Syrian auteur Muhammad Malas was interviewed for  Unlocking Doors of Cinema  by director Nezar Andary (Photo courtesy Nezar Andary)

Rana Asfour

unlocking doors of cinema malas poster.png

For his first fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary, Abu Dhabi-based aca­d­e­m­ic and film­mak­er Nezar Andary sought to explore the work and life of Syr­i­an-born leg­end Muham­mad Malas, as a means of tak­ing the view­er on a tour of Arab auteur cin­e­ma. Unlock­ing Doors of Cin­e­ma is a warm-heart­ed homage to Muham­mad Malas’ pio­neer spir­it, as well as a reck­on­ing with a gen­er­a­tion of engaged intel­lec­tu­als whose col­lec­tive cul­tur­al efforts and inten­si­ty of pur­pose paved the way for the lat­est gen­er­a­tion of Mid­dle East film­mak­ers. From the 1967 War and Pales­tin­ian camps in Beirut, to the songs of Alep­po, and the polit­i­cal tragedies of Syr­ia in recent years, Andary argues that for five decades now, Malas “exem­pli­fies what it means to be an auteur and pub­lic intellectual.”

A writer, film­mak­er and Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor at Zayed Uni­ver­si­ty in the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates’ cap­i­tal, Abu Dhabi, Andary also edits a book series on Arab cin­e­ma for Pal­grave, where he co-authored The Cin­e­ma of Muham­mad Malas, Visions of a Syr­i­an Auteur (Pal­grave 2018) with Sami­ra AlKa­s­sim. It is this book, com­bined with 12 hours of inter­view footage with Malas and dozens of hours from Malas’s oeu­vre that shape a film about a direc­tor who “lis­tens, sees and hears cinema.”

The 60-minute doc­u­men­tary was shot in Lebanon where the 16th cen­tu­ry Tal­houk Cas­tle pro­vid­ed a wor­thy back­drop for a con­ver­sa­tion on mem­o­ry, loss, regret and hope.

“The house was per­fect,” com­ment­ed Andary when we spoke recent­ly on Zoom. “It played a huge part in lend­ing a haunt­ing atmos­phere to the film, which I felt remark­ably mir­rored Malas’s life­long sense of exile.

“My aim was to allow the doc­u­men­tary to be haunt­ed, in a pos­i­tive way, by Malas’s films and also by films that haunt his work as well,” Andary said. “Even the title is an homage to Malas’s work, drawn from research­ing the amount of doors that open, close and lock in his movies, which he uses to rep­re­sent larg­er metaphors or alle­gories on some lev­el tied to times and places we haven’t seen or been able to recov­er due to region­al con­flict. Ulti­mate­ly, what I hoped for was to end up not only with a doc­u­men­tary about a great Arab film­mak­er but also with a film breath­ing cin­e­ma itself.”

Show­cas­ing Unlock­ing Doors of Cin­e­ma on the film fes­ti­val cir­cuit as we begin to rec­on­cile our­selves with the 10th anniver­sary of the thwart­ed Thawra or Arab Spring rev­o­lu­tions, could not have been more timely—not only amid the con­tin­ued unrest in the Mid­dle East but also as polit­i­cal ana­lysts and indi­vid­u­als from the region and out­side it look back to scru­ti­nize the past decade since Mohamed Bouazzi immo­lat­ed him­self in Tunisia, spark­ing upris­ings across the region. Andary’s doc­u­men­tary hones in on Malas’s obses­sion with exam­in­ing per­son­al and col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of social and polit­i­cal trau­ma and dis­pos­ses­sion in his films. If any­thing, the doc­u­men­tary demon­strates that the region’s quest for jus­tice is noth­ing new, for Malas’s films por­tray decades of rebel­lions against despo­tism, as his pro­tag­o­nists strug­gle to over­come obsta­cles even as they expose hid­den truths. It is Andary’s exca­va­tion of the film­mak­er’s past work— includ­ing the 1967 Arab-Israel war in Quneitra 74, The Mem­o­ry (1975) and Dreams of the City (1984), Pales­tin­ian refugees in Lebanon camps in The Dream (1980–81) and The Night (1992)—up until the more recent Lad­der to Dam­as­cus (2013), that not only allow expan­sion of the dis­cus­sion regard­ing the region’s tumul­tuous his­to­ry but also fore­grounds Malas’s piv­otal sig­nif­i­cance and rel­e­vance to this day as guardian of Arab auteur cin­e­ma and its ever-evolv­ing advo­cate. Cin­e­ma, as Andary’s doc­u­men­tary seems to pro­pose and which Malas’s life­work cor­rob­o­rates, is how we learn to remem­ber and reflect on the past, and togeth­er, oppose the nat­ur­al dis­po­si­tion of soci­ety to for­get. “All that is for­got­ten,” says Malas to the cam­era, “dies.”

Born in Quneitra on the Golan Heights in Syr­ia, Malas was son to the car­pen­ter who roofed the town’s sole cin­e­ma where the film­mak­er caught his first film The White Rose (1933) fea­tur­ing Mohamed Abdul Wahab. When he was nine years old, his father died, and he was forced to leave town with his moth­er to live with her fam­i­ly in Dam­as­cus. It was not long after that the 1967 war with Israel broke out and his beloved city fell under Israeli con­trol. Israel con­tin­ued to con­trol Quneitra until ear­ly June 1974, when it was returned to Syr­i­an civil­ian con­trol fol­low­ing the sig­na­ture of a Unit­ed States-bro­kered dis­en­gage­ment agree­ment. The city remains destroyed to this day. Malas’s return to his ruined home­town in many of his films sug­gests a loss from which he has nev­er recovered.

“It is safe to say that in a way akin to sur­vivor’s guilt, every­thing for Malas goes back to Quneitra. His rela­tion­ship to the aban­doned place is some­thing of a metaphor to his lost child­hood,” Andary explained. 

Muhammad Malas with his documentary director, Nezar Andary.

As such and call­ing to mind Hen­ri Lefeb­vre’s reflec­tions on his­to­ry, time and mem­o­ry, Malas’s films appear as attempts at remem­ber­ing hap­py spaces of the past that artic­u­late a desire to some­how regain them. 

That said though, Andary is mind­ful of a “false nos­tal­gia” that unlock­ing a place and look­ing at it direct­ly “in mem­o­ry” can result in. How­ev­er, “with­in this false nos­tal­gia,” he explained, “is still an act of look­ing for some­thing that might have been bet­ter from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive than what we present­ly have.”

Malas stud­ied cin­e­ma in Moscow for five years where he found his inner voice in auteur cin­e­ma. Sur­round­ed by impor­tant intel­lec­tu­als of the time, one of whom was his room­mate, Egypt­ian nov­el­ist Son­al­lah Ibrahim, who lat­er appeared in Malas’s grad­u­a­tion film Every­thing is Alright Mr. Police Offi­cer, set in an Arab jail cell. In it Son­al­lah recalls his sev­en-year jail sen­tence ordered by Gamal Abdel Nass­er in 1959 for his mem­ber­ship in the Marx­ist Demo­c­ra­t­ic Move­ment for Nation­al Liberation. 

An Arab left­ist, Malas believed in the nation­al­ist project and the rights of the Pales­tini­ans to return to Pales­tine. “So much so,” said Andary, “that I would go so far as to call him a Pales­tin­ian film­mak­er.” His doc­u­men­ta­tion of the plight of the Pales­tini­ans forced to leave their lands after 1948 to seek refuge else­where was the rea­son he shot a doc­u­men­tary film, al-Man­am (The Dream) (1980–81), about the Pales­tini­ans liv­ing in the refugee camps in Lebanon dur­ing the civ­il war. The film was com­posed of inter­views with the refugees in which he asked them about their dreams. In the doc­u­men­tary Malas explained how the sto­ries unveiled myr­i­ad images of a Pales­tine that those who were forced to leave car­ried in their hearts.

Film still from Malas's  Ladder to Damascus .

That’s not to say that Syr­ia was not ever his ulti­mate con­cern. It was. In fact, as ever the engaged Arab cit­i­zen, in 2013 Malas took to the streets of Dam­as­cus to doc­u­ment the protests demand­ing change and free­dom in a film he lat­er named Lad­der to Dam­as­cus, describ­ing it as “a song of courage to the Syr­i­an youth.” What sets it apart from his oth­er work in Syr­ia is not only the dan­ger involved in the mak­ing of the film but also his own dis­be­lief at how dif­fer­ent­ly things turned out for the region from what his gen­er­a­tion had hoped for.  Com­ment­ing on Lad­der to Dam­as­cus in the Andary doc­u­men­tary, Malas laments the fail­ure of his gen­er­a­tion in so many ways for being unaware of the real­i­ties in Syr­ia and for “not hav­ing the fore­sight to address all the pos­si­bil­i­ties that could one day become real­i­ties.” He is, how­ev­er, not with­out hope. He believes “this gen­er­a­tion with all the tools it has at its dis­pos­al and its open­ness of vision equips it to see through things and to resist.”

Malas still lives in Dam­as­cus despite the chal­lenges of the civ­il war that has cost Syr­ia so many lives and much of its sta­bil­i­ty. While he has done a prison stretch and has seen cer­tain of his films banned by the gov­ern­ment, his work, Andary says, is well-known and respect­ed across the Arab world. 

As for Andary, after leav­ing Lebanon with his fam­i­ly dur­ing its civ­il war (1975–1990), he grew up in sev­er­al Arab coun­tries before going on to earn his bach­e­lors at Colum­bia and his PhD at UCLA. An Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor at Zayed Uni­ver­si­ty, over the last four years Andary has pro­duced more than 10 doc­u­men­tary shorts for the Arab Film Stu­dio that have screened in over 50 fes­ti­vals. His recent pub­li­ca­tions include a work on Antho­ny Sha­did, Homage to Antho­ny Sha­did: Lit­er­a­ture of a Jour­nal­ist, as well as a study on Ibn Khal­dun in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture and the­atre, enti­tled Con­fronting the Sym­bol of the Intel­lec­tu­al. These days, as his Malas doc tours the film fes­ti­val cir­cuit, Andary is focus­ing on his role as artis­tic direc­tor of the forth­com­ing Al Sidr Envi­ron­men­tal Film Fes­ti­val in Abu Dhabi, and he has co-curat­ed a series of films for the Man­aarat Saadiyaat Muse­um and Exhi­bi­tion Center. 

In effect, what film­mak­ers Nezar Andary and Muham­mad Malas have man­aged to achieve with Unlock­ing Doors of Cin­e­ma is what all docs, first and fore­most, are sup­posed to do and that is to inform.  How­ev­er, a doc­u­men­tary is still a film, after all, and there­fore a piece of art and Andary’s film is a gem—a med­i­ta­tion on Malas that has the incred­i­ble nuance and where­with­al of being able to tell a sto­ry at the pre­cise pace that both artists require, reveal­ing infor­ma­tion only when and where it cre­ates the most mean­ing for the audi­ence and for the film as a whole. 

It is one that allows its view­ers the space to think freely and to deep­en their under­stand­ing of the sub­ject and of them­selves and to walk away with a con­ver­sa­tion that will res­onate well after the screening.


Inline Feedbacks
View all comments