A Syrian Love Story

Directed by Sean McAllister

Filmed over 5 years, A Syrian Love Story charts an incredible odyssey to political freedom. For Raghda and Amer, it is a journey of hope, dreams and despair: for the revolution, their homeland and each other.


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  • ★★★★ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd

    Some people have an aversion to documentaries where the documentarian is an on-screen presence. They're missing a lot, and this new film by Sean McAllister is a shining example of a film that couldn't be told - or couldn't be as satisfying - if it was made in any other way. At first, McAllister appears to be setting himself up as a Nick Broomfield-esque comic investigator, travelling to Syria at a time when its chinless dictator Bashar al-Assad was still hailed as a great friend of freedom by Western media. Judging by the opening five minutes, he initially spent his time getting up Syrians' noses by trying to hunt out a story worth filming.

    But this is misdirection. Once McAllister finds his story, the film seems to be moving in more of a triumph-over-adversity direction, the story of a man and his children keeping vigil for his imprisoned dissident wife. And then, just when you're getting used to that, this strand comes to a premature end. Every time I felt like I was getting a read on McAllister's film it kept on turning off in a different direction, but not in the outrageous, stranger-than-fiction manner of a film like Tabloid or The Impostor. Rather, A Syrian Love Story keeps on getting more complex, more painful, more challenging, harder to see in terms of good and bad - rather like the horrifyingly murky civil war it documents.

    Rather than have me describe these twists, you should experience the skill of McAllister's narrative construction for yourself. Talking about a documentary in terms of storytelling can sometimes give people the impression that you're saying it's fabricated - but McAllister's narrative strategies are based on an honest response to the knots and whorls of the story he's filming, and his presence on screen allows you to see how he tried to navigate these events as they happened. It's hard to imagine how a film could be more transparent than this.

    It's 75 minutes long, which you can view in two ways. One is that McAllister's film is laudably free of self-indulgent, particularly considering the amount of footage he must have shot. The other is that it feels a bit too slight to do justice to the events covered. I have some sympathy with the latter view but I'm not sure how McAllister could have given the film a greater sense of closure. I fear it will be a long time before it's possible to tell a close-ended story about the Syrian conflict.

    Available on BBC iPlayer for the next 22 days, so catch it while you can.

  • ★★★★★ review by James Haves on Letterboxd

    A haunting and emotionally draining experience. A story that's heart-breaking because it's so human, and how such mundane problems can hurt us as much as seemingly apocalyptic crises.

    There's a reason this is called A Syrian Love Story, because it is a story about love with the Syrian crisis as a backdrop. If this was a fictional film it would have felt melodramatic and over the top, but because of it's documentary format, we see the emotion raw and up close, and how drained and defeated everyone is by the end. This is barely bittersweet, it's bitter and draining and depressing with maybe the tiniest glint of hope for these people in the future, though we know the emotional baggage and mental torture will follow them forever.

    It would have been incredibly easy for Sean McAllister to make a film centered on the crisis itself or on his own imprisonment in Syria during the production of this film, but he keeps it grounded by having it truly be a love story and keeping it that way.

    A Syrian Love Story is an incredible achievement in documentary filmmaking, emotional non-fiction storytelling, and is the best film of 2015.

    Essential viewing.

  • ★★★★ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd

    In the space of a very compact hour and twenty minutes, Sean McAllister manages to tie us into a complex layer of emotions some directors struggle to produce in two or three times the run time. Many of our simple desires for a safe and prosperous life are seen here through the eyes of a toddler, teenager, young adult and husband and wife. Pretty much everything we take for granted.

    McAllister could never have known when he first sought out a 'gritty' story in the Middle East five years ago, just how central Syria would become in the worlds eye. To that end, it adds a whole other level of intrigue taking in glimpses of life under Assad's brutal regime, pre-ISIS. Praise must also be given to the director for not using such personal material to grandstand and make a wider political point.

    He trusts the viewer to be aware of the journey the Middle East has taken since the Arab Spring, watching how the political stress has impacted on this and thousand of other unseen families. It's construction couldn't feel more genuine or look more straight forward and the rewards for that approach are ample. It is quite simply a film about love for each other, love for our family and and the need to find a place to we can call home.

  • ★★★½ review by Jason Still on Letterboxd

    Recorded as a 'like' in the filmic sense, as opposed to the content, McAllister's fly-on-the-wall documentary charts the breakdown of a relationship that mirrors the destruction of the country so loved by the couple at the heart of the story.

    Curious in its depiction of a most unusual love triangle: Syria itself is the affair that drives a wedge between the lovers. It is uncomfortable viewing: we see things that are - and should remain - private. Yet, in its defence, such scenes highlight the human tragedy that blanket news coverage fails to reflect; it is made real and immediate.

    As we arrive in the present, the children seem remarkably well adjusted, resulting in an essentially positive story emerging from such a desperate situation.

  • ★★★★ review by JimmyDean on Letterboxd

    It's an astonishing achievement to develop such an intimate relationship between the filmmaker and the film's subjects, and the film reaps the rewards of it. It's an intimate and honest look at a family whose relationships decays as the escape the horrors of Syria: a film that benefits hugely from the character's comfort of revealing their private emotions to the filmmaker. For obvious reasons, the film is incredibly relevant at the moment, but it's so much more than a political statement as the film captures true relatable human emotion in the most extreme circumstances.

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