The film opens with shots that could be of a holiday, in a Syria long destroyed. The filmmaker, Sean McAllister (The Liberace of Baghdad, The Reluctant Revolutionary), is in Syria in 2009, visiting as part of a state initiative to drum up tourism. But he is looking for “gritty” stories, the real struggles of real people. Though some Syrians rebuff his enquiries, telling him to stick to the script and asking why he is—and by implication all western journalists—“always looking for something negative”, one night he meets Amer, who is keen on telling him about his imprisoned wife, Ragda. He has found his story.
Ragda and Amer met in Assad’s prisons: he had been a Palestinian freedom fighter and she was a Syrian revolutionary, and he saw her through a hole in his cell wall, bruised and bloodied from a beating by Assad’s thugs. They fell in love and four children later she has written a book telling their story, and is once again in prison. Amer speaks to Sean determined to get her out, but it is only after the ‘Arab Spring’ protests and mounting pressure from the west that she is released. They have a brief period of bliss, clearly very much in love, but as the protests devolve into war, Sean is arrested and his footage of the family confiscated, and they are forced to flee to Lebanon.
They are all unhappy in Lebanon. Ragda feels guilty at having “betrayed” the revolution she helped to start, feeling the need to fight but, as Amer says, torn between “being Che Guevara and a mother”. Amer wants to go to Europe; he sees no future for them since he cannot get work because he is not Lebanese and the children cannot attend school.
They embody two different responses to what became of the Syrian revolution: the fleeing father, only wanting “safe and quiet” futures for his family, the mother wanting to fight, to struggle, to win “the same future for them but in Syria,” whatever the price. And the price has been death, for many of their friends and family, and for hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
Over the course of several years, the film follows the couple’s journey, sharing key moments with them as their relationship and their country unravel. The family’s story, their personal trauma, is inextricable from that of a country torn apart. The war brings their differences to the fore until they become insurmountable, and their heartbreak has a profound impact on their growing boys—perhaps even more so than their parents’ imprisonment by Assad, or the war, or becoming a refugee. And yet they adapt, in their own ways.
The story is told almost tenderly but without falling into cliché, and our window onto Ragda and Amer’s lives, via Sean’s relationship with them, is intimate but not intrusive. Sean’s touch is light and as narrator he seems to recede into the background, even though in the process of documenting their lives he has also changed them. Though the camera is hand held giving it a low-budget feel, the intensity of emotion, the quick but calm pace and dramatic scoring mean the documentary views like a tense drama, heavily investing us in the choices the couple make and the different paths they choose.
Towards the end of the film, Amer wearily asks Sean why he’s still shooting when he has supposedly “finished”; but given what we have learned about Amer, perhaps he is just weary of having a life worth filming—the end of the film is the end of the story. For Ragda, however, the story seems to be just beginning.
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