Orwa Nyrabia and the absurdity of cinema detention

To Orwa Nyrabia and thousands of Syrians who are detained along with our hearts in the cells of the tyrant.

Mohammad Al Attar
2 September 2012

I visit Orwa's Facebook page every day to read his words that empower me sometimes and provoke anger or laughter some other times. In any case, it is always a necessary and interesting visit. A glance at an unmistakable compass guided by love, anger, and pain on one hand - and a balanced vision on the other. It is not a trivial fact to insist on having clear targets in times of revolution. Clear vision in times of injustice and oppression is equal to resilience in the face of fear and despair. It is a position that many Syrian intellectuals, who were supposed to lead the revolution, have failed to adopt, either out of fear or ideological blindness with the futile question, "how to revolt?", or out of indebtedness to a corrupt regime. 

Orwa's solid strength in supporting the people's revolution chimed with his personality. You can love him or hate him. You can admire his work or not. The only sure thing is his unwavering determination to reach his goal, whether it be a scholarship for a young cinematographer or funding for a documentary or a cinema festival in a country where censorship holds near absolute sway.  But Orwa's dream, this time, is no less than freedom for his country and people. A final liberation from the power of 'forever'. 

We might miss Orwa's words, and we might feel sore looking at the photos published in solidarity with him, but his words are still a 'sustenance' for our hearts and minds, in exactly the same way that Orwa, addressing all those people who are afraid, or silent or suspicious about his enthusiasms, once described his own sense of having a "self-sustained heart" within him, not supported by any outside authority. His heart sustenance is his vision of a people's well-deserved freedom. It is also our just demands and the inevitable victory of the values of justice and dignity.

But what did Orwa's jailers learn from his words? The jailers in my country did not take away with them the lesson that it is impossible for the walls to beat our dreams. Did they ask themselves, how can we arrest cinema? How can we arrest a picture? An idea? This is why it is impossible to arrest Orwa, and to arrest the dream of freedom and the dreamer. I think of a scene where a cinema screen is imprisoned behind dark metal, and at the door of the prison cell, a guard with his pistol hung on his side, watching through his eyeglasses. This is a bizarre and unruly scene even by Terry Gilliam's or Tim Burton's standards. 

But even if they can detain cinema, what about the hidden reels? What about the negatives? What about the images stuck in memory? What about all the unwipeable words and ideas? I will travel whenever I want with Orwa's words and the films he introduced us to within the Dox Box festival. Will you arrest all these films? Can you arrest our memory? Omar Amiralay's and Patricio Guzman's films that Orwa introduced with passion will remind us of him. Can you arrest all these? I will defy the absurdity of his detention by remembering his words and his passion about films, an enjoyment so close to those in the famous and breathtaking scenes of Tornatore's "Cinema Paradiso". 

Last March, during a visit to Berlin, I was surprised to see posters inviting cinema lovers to attend the Dox Box festival: the festival that Orwa dreamed about and worked so hard for with a group of young dreamers, started this year, a gift from Syria to the whole world. Tens of cities hosted the festival, in a symbolic and touching gesture to remind this cruel world of Syria's agony. Spilled blood in Syria has deprived Syrians from celebrating the annual documentary festival, but cinemas around the world hosted this festival that embodies Syrians' hopes and pain. The festival proved that Syrians can fight for their freedom and make films at the same time. They are capable of miracles. 

I met Orwa last, a few months ago, at a friend's house. There were former prisoners among the friends, some of them had just been released and some didn't know that they will follow. It was on a Thursday in the beginning of autumn, the air was fresh and a few hours were left until another bloody Friday. Our laughter hid the tension and anxiety, and Orwa, as usual, tried to spread his optimism by telling us funny tales from the revolution. We were sitting on a balcony, the sky was so close. 

I will remember only this picture of Orwa from that evening, under a clear sky. The sky has never been closer to Syrians than now. Clear and accessible sky with no more burdens of fear. Syrians now look more and more to the sky because they are fed up with looking down, which they did for decades. They will either travel to the sky in a queue of martyrs, or will take it as the only roof for their new free country.


Orwa Nyrabia:

Syrian filmmaker and producer Orwa Nyrabia was arrested in Damascus International Airport while travelling to Cairo at noon on
Thursday, August 23, 2012. The reasons behind his arrest are still unknown, as well as his whereabouts and the security branch which is holding him.

Nyrabia graduated from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus in 1999. He participated at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004 for his lead-role in the film, ‘The Door to the Sun’, based on the work of the Lebanese novelist, Elias Khoury.

At the beginning of his career, Nyrabia worked as an assistant director with prominent filmmakers such as Ossama Mohammed from Syria and Yusri Nasrallah from Egypt.

Nyrabia works as a film producer and is one of the founders of DOX BOX International Documentary Film Festival held in Syria. The festival was initially launched during the ‘Damascus: Arab Capital of Culture’ festival in 2008, under the patronage of the National Film Organization up till 2011.

Nyrabia contributed to several Arab and international collaborations and networks to support the documentary film industry in his country and the rest of the Arab region. He was honoured as a member of the jury at international film festivals including Ibn Rushd in Tehran and in Amsterdam, Leipzig and Copenhagen among others.

His family still have no information about the reasons for his detention, are worried about his safety and are calling for his immediate release by the Syrian Authorities. 

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