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

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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.